Chang hopes to end Grand elusion at Open 11-year pro to seek 1st major title since '89

August 31, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- This will be Michael Chang's 12th U.S. Open. And as he sits here, thinking about this tournament that begins at the National Tennis Center today, he says that coming to the Open for the first time was the best time.

He was 15 then, hoping for a chance to play in the main draw. He remembers wandering through the facility, finding his way around the locker room.

"It was so exciting," he says. "I was seeing guys I'd only ever seen on television."

His still-boyish face creases as he smiles. Times change. Expectations change.

Now, he is one of those familiar faces young qualifiers eye in the locker room and hope to upset on the court.

"That first time, it was just nice to be here," says Chang, 26, who will play qualifier Eyal Erlich of Israel in the first round. "A year or two later, you're hoping to make the round of 16 and then the quarters. It just keeps growing and growing."

He made the semifinals in 1992, the quarters in 1993 and 1995 and the final in 1996 before losing to Pete Sampras. And then, last year, it looked like everything was breaking his way, as he made it to the semifinals again, against Australian Patrick Rafter. But it was Rafter who would win that match and go on to his first Grand Slam title.

Now, Chang enters the U.S. Open unseeded and ranked outside the Top 20 for the first time since he turned pro as a 16-year-old in 1988.

He is ranked 22nd after a year hampered by injury. First, knee trouble in March knocked him out of the Top 10, then a wrist injury in May, while playing against Sampras in the Italian Open, forced him from the Top 20. Unexpected, recurring bouts of tendinitis have kept him from making an extended run leading into the Open.

But Chang comes here as a "dangerous floater," the guy the top seeds don't want to run up against in the early rounds. And yesterday, he won his first tournament in more than a year, defeating Paul Haarhuis, 6-3, 6-4, at the MFS Pro Championships in Brookline, Mass.

No. 1 seed Sampras, who won his fifth Wimbledon singles title in July and can match Roy Emerson's Grand Slam victory record of 12 with a win here, does not have to worry about seeing Chang until the final. But he'll have more than enough to worry about, with defending champ Rafter (No. 3), a revived Andre Agassi (No. 8) and an inspired, though usually underachieving Goran Ivanisevic (No. 14) all in the top half of the draw with him.

In the bottom half, where Chang is, the first seed he could see is No. 10 Carlos Moya. Also in the bottom half are No. 5 Richard Krajicek, No. 11 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, No. 4 Petr Korda, No. 13 Tim Henman, No. 7 Alex Corretja and No. 2 Marcelo Rios.

"I think the time has passed for Chang in a lot of ways," says Patrick McEnroe, a CBS analyst. "Every year it becomes less likely that he'll win another Grand Slam. Last year, he had his best chance. But now, he's slipped in the rankings, and the scary thing about it from Michael's perspective is that it seems his body has started to let him down."

Chang disagrees with that. He says people have been speculating his entire career that, because he tracks down every ball like a human golden retriever, it will shorten his career and, eventually, he'll pay a price.

"If you know how to work hard, then the working hard part doesn't scare you," he says. "Injuries, coming back from them, would be a scary undertaking if you weren't used to putting out the effort. I know people think the miles on my body will wear me out. But I think the most important thing is what you feel in your own heart."

An argument could be made that last year was the best of Chang's career. He won five tournaments and made it to No. 2 for most of the year before finishing the year at No. 3.

Chang's lack of success this year -- his championship yesterday was his first since winning the Legg Mason title in Washington in June 1997 -- doesn't seem to bother him. However, the fact that he has won just one Grand Slam title, the French Open in 1989, has created doubts.

"It does pass through your mind, how many times you almost make it," he says, recalling runner-up efforts in the Australian, French and U.S. opens. "I've not been able to get over the hurdle. I hope it's in God's plan. But it's a process of stages to go through, I think. Your attitude changes. I'm not to the point of being desperate -- not yet. It's more that the more times I come close, it increased my fire and my motivation."

Part of his motivation comes from his family. Chang has one of the strongest support teams in tennis. Ask him about it and he runs quickly down the list -- "My brother, my sister-in-law, my mom, my dad, my trainer at home. All these people are involved. Even my cousin Jenny, who works at the office taking care of the fan club."

Chang says if he makes it to the U.S. Open title, it will be due to a team effort.

"I admit that if I had not had all of them as my supporters, it would be very, very easy -- at this point, with the injuries, with not having great results -- to say, 'Let's move on. Let's be satisfied,' " he says. "But because I have those people who are with me, it's easy to keep trying."

Chang can't wait to begin again at the Open. He rose to No. 2 in the world and is now planning a rise from No. 22.

"Maybe I'm meant to end on a high note," he says. "Maybe reach No. 1, win another Grand Slam. I've just got to be patient and try to stay positive while waiting for the next one [Grand Slam title] to finish it off."

118th U.S. Open

When: Today to Sept. 13.

Where: National Tennis Center, New York.

TV: 11 a.m., 7: 30 p.m., USA

Today's featured matches:

Day session, begins 11 a.m.

Pete Sampras (1) vs. Marc-Kevin Goellner

Martina Hingis (1) vs. Aleksandra Olsza

Night session, begins 7: 30 p.m.

Florencia Labat vs. Monica Seles (6)

Sebastien Grosjean vs. Andre Agassi (8)

Pub Date: 8/31/98

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