Agassi arrives, Chang departs American duo continues to vary

V. Williams wins

Australian Open

January 23, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MELBOURNE, Australia -- One player, the baldish and flighty one, has just returned from a self-styled trip to oblivion that taught him to treat his tennis talent like a brand new car and demonstrate some pride of ownership. The other player, the gritty workaholic whose tennis talent has suddenly gone bankrupt, seems headed toward oblivion.

Andre Agassi, ranked 87th in the world but light-years away from the player he was when he won the Australian Open on his maiden voyage here in 1995, pulled off what he termed "a significant upset" last night.

But Michael Chang, ranked third and eager to halt a slide that left him without a victory in nine of his last 10 matches in 1997, did a fast fade. He was ousted in straight sets by Guillaume Raoux, a 46th-ranked Frenchman who, like Agassi, was not considered much of a threat at the year's first Grand Slam event.

Prime examples of the different-strokes-for-different-folks philosophy, Agassi and Chang exited the second round in different directions.

Nobody, including Chang, had any premonition that Raoux, a sturdy and bespectacled spoiler who had not won a set from Chang in three prior confrontations, would bedevil the third-seeded American so relentlessly.

Chang, the Houdini of comebacks from two-sets-to-none down -- a feat he had performed in six of his 20 five-setters -- never got the chance to craft one yesterday. He was still shaking his head in disbelief after Raoux fired the ace that eliminated him, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5).

Runner-up to Boris Becker here in 1996 and a semifinalist last year, Chang said: "I felt like I was never able to get ahead, and although I always thought I could claw my way back and win it in five, today it just was not meant to be. I don't feel like there's anything wrong with my game."

Yet, Chang has not won a Grand Slam event since making history at age 17 in the 1989 French Open. He was devastated by his semifinal loss to Patrick Rafter at the 1997 U.S. Open, which he was expected to win once Pete Sampras was eliminated.

While Chang seems on the decline, Agassi is clearly on the upswing and may have designs on repeating his 1994 Grand Slam exploits, when he won the U.S. Open while unseeded.

Agassi had the fans doing the wave last night as he strutted around the stadium and, with a briskness of intent that harkened back to his heyday, pulled out the match against a startled Albert Costa, seeded 16th.

Agassi exploited the Spaniard's weaker forehand and turned in a 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5 victory that doubled as a statement: two months after remedial work on the challenger circuit, he's back.

"It feels incredibly familiar," Agassi said after outwitting and outhitting a fellow baseliner with a level of cunning and commitment that had eroded over the last two seasons. "I went out there with a game plan to make an impression, to control the points and end the points, and it felt great to remember what it's like to break somebody down, make somebody feel my game."

Chang and Costa were not the only seeds to lose. In today's third round, Cedric Pioline defeated 11th seed Alex Corretja, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. Sixth seed Petr Korda did advance to the fourth round, defeating Vincent Spadea, 6-2, 7-6 (10-8), 6-2.

On the women's side, Venus Williams reached the fourth round, breezing past Amelie Mauresmo, 6-1, 6-4. And the seeded women advanced, with No. 2 Lindsay Davenport defeating Flora Perfetti, 6-2, 6-2, No. 9 Sandrine Testud ousting Adriana Gersi, 6-4, 6-2, and 15th seed Ruxandra Dragomir topping Florencia Labat, 6-2, 7-5.

Chang, in his 11th year on the tour, dismissed suggestions he was losing his appetite for the sport. "I feel in my heart that the hunger is still there," he said.

Off the court

Williams: Sorry for his "stupid statement" about Irina Spirlea at the U.S. Open, Richard Williams recanted a charge of racism on the WTA Tour toward his daughters, Venus and Serena.

Tarango: Jeff Tarango, who walked off during the third round at Wimbledon in 1995, was fined $3,000 for unsportsmanlike behavior during a four-set loss to Patrick Rafter on center court Tuesday.

More fines: Goran Ivanisevic collected a second fine. The Croatian was fined $5,000 for skipping his news conference after his first-round loss. He was given another fine Thursday of $4,000 for unsportsmanlike behavior.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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