For Chang, D.C. is a capital idea Tennis: Most players dread the Legg Mason Classic because of Washington's heat and humidity, but two-time defending champion Michael Chang enjoys the event.

July 16, 1998|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- While untold hundreds of tennis professionals would just as soon leave Washington to the politicians, Ken Starr and the oppressive summer heat, Michael Chang is one player who looks upon the Legg Mason Tennis Classic tour stop with something approaching relief.

"Of course it's hot, but I always feel comfortable going out on the court here," said the two-time defending champ who will carry a 12-match winning streak onto the FitzGerald Center's stadium court when the tournament starts next week.

The reasons are fairly simple. "Maybe I'm a little fitter than the other players," Chang said, "maybe I recover a little faster." No maybes about it. While countless players have been vocal about the heat, the humidity and matches starting at 11 a.m. over the years, Chang just plays the cards dealt him.

"Besides, I'm used to it; I live in Henderson, Nevada [outside Las Vegas, where it has been 110 degrees all week]," he said. "Another thing, I've got memories of good things happening for me in the tournament and that always makes a guy eager to return."

The good things the past two years not only include victories over Petr Korda and Wayne Ferreira in the finals, but Davis Cup victories over defending U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter and Mark Philippoussis in last September's Davis Cup semifinal challenge between the United States and Australia.

Two years ago, Chang rode into town with a world ranking of No. 5 and moved up two places with his victory. It got him started on a summer run in which he reached his first U.S. Open final, losing to Pete Sampras. Last year, Chang, still just 26 after seemingly being around since the days of Ellsworth Vines, arrived with the No. 2 ranking and four tournament titles already under his belt. Then the bottom fell out.

Chang won just one of his last eight matches in 1997 and currently ranks No. 15 in the world despite making it to the finals of tournaments in Memphis, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla.

"Injuries," he said, "major injuries have been my problem. First, it was muscle spasms and a leg problem. Lately, it's been my left wrist, which just about ruined my clay-court season."

Chang won the French Open at 17, and it has always been assumed that slow clay was his best surface. This is a falsehood, because Chang's best showings have always come on the hard courts, where his record last year was 44-9 even while he was free-falling in the rankings.

With his ground strokes, retrieving ability and never-say-die attitude, Chang is a natural for fast surfaces and he has been since taking up the game as a youngster in California.

"Another thing I like about the [D.C.] stadium is there's lots of room side-to-side," he says. "When I play at the Open [Flushing Meadows], first thing I do is move some of the flower pots. There's always room to roam in the Legg Mason."

Chang's chief challengers in the Rock Creek Park tournament celebrating its 30th year figures to come from Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, who are the mainstays of a Davis Cup squad staging a quarterfinal match in Indianapolis this weekend against Belgium.

"They'll be pumped up coming off Davis Cup while all I'm trying to do right now is get healthy and play pain free," says Chang of the upcoming assignment. Combined, Agassi and Courier are 1-3 in matches here the last two years, so don't waste any sympathy on the defending champ.

NOTES: With a half-dozen courts available, daily matches begin at 4 p.m. instead of the dreaded 11 a.m. start used previously. The evening sessions begin at 7. Receiving wild cards into the main draw are Rockville native Paul Goldstein and his Stanford University teammate Bob Bryan, whom he lost to in the NCAA tourney final. Bryan's twin brother, Mike, is being wild-carded into the doubles. All three are newly-minted pros. A 28-player qualifier, which will yield seven tourney spots, goes Saturday and Sunday beginning at 10 a.m.

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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