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Chang, Rafter Advance to Semifinals

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 1997; Page C1

NEW YORK, Sept. 4 ó In a sense, Patrick Rafter helped clear the path to the U.S. Open title for Michael Chang, the second-seeded American who so desperately wants to add this championship to the lone Grand Slam title he has claimed in his career. Now, Rafter looms as the biggest obstacle in Changís march to that crown.

Chang ó a master at making matches last forever ó won his quarterfinal at Arthur Ashe Stadium this evening to advance to the semifinals on Super Saturday. He did not make it easy, or fast, or neat. Ahead two sets against No. 10 Marcelo Rios, Chang had to fight his way to a 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 victory.

And when he first looked at the menís draw in this tournament, Chang wondered if he might have to meet Andre Agassi at this stage, since Agassi appeared to be the favorite to make it to the semifinals. Instead, though, Chang will face Rafter, who knocked off Agassi in the fourth round and served-and-volleyed his way to a 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-2 victory today.

"Rafter has been playing some great, great tennis," Chang said. "Itís going to be a tough match. Itís really going to be a super Saturday."

Chang did not get the crowd behind him tonight until he squandered his lead and had to dig deep to win his second straight five-set match in this tournament. Rafter did not have that problem.

The 24-year-old Aussie thought the fans might hold a grudge against him after he beat their beloved Agassi, but that was far from the case. With great crowd support, Rafter ran his way into his second Grand Slam semifinal this season, then was asked for his shirt, his hat and his hand in marriage as he made his triumphant departure from the court.

"I canít let the excitement of it all distract me from where I have to go," Rafter said. "If I can do that, play the same way, then thatís all I can ask of myself."

Rafter may need a lot of energy to play Chang, who canít seem to close out a match easily and never seems to run out of gas. And the same can be said of Changís opponent this evening, who is about as inclined to play five-set matches as Chang himself.

Tonight, there were actually skid marks on the green hardcourt inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, so often did these two fast and fit players slide into shots that most others could never reach. And they looked headed for cliffhanger of a fifth-set tiebreaker until Chang broke Rios in the eighth game of that set, then served out the match.

At No. 2 and No. 13, respectively, Chang and Rafter are the only two seeds in the semifinals, with the other semifinal matching Greg Rusedski with Jonas Bjorkman. Bjorkman ó a wise-cracking Swede who can do a killer imitation of Boris Becker ó advanced to the semifinals when 15th-seeded Petr Korda was forced to retire with a severe head cold on Wednesday night. Today, Bjorkman became the first man to make the semifinals in both singles and menís doubles since Stefan Edberg in 1987 when he and partner Niklas Kulti won their quarterfinal match over Wayne Black and Jim Grabb.

While Bjorkman was playing his way into weekend double-duty, Larsson, his Davis Cup teammate, was trying to make it a two-Swede final four this year. But Rafter felt just as strongly about re-establishing an Australian presence in tennisís top 10. And with a game thatís patterned after Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Pat Cash, he did just that.

"I was thinking about that on the court," Rafter said. "All the dreams, all the goals, all the things Iíve worked for."

But with Larsson playing a tough baseline game, Rafter waited until he broke at love in the third set ó and put himself in position to serve for the match ó before he allowed himself to start savoring what he has accomplished this year.

Ranked No. 62 at the start of the season and riddled with injuries the previous two years, Rafter now is guaranteed to be in the top 10 next week. He will be Australiaís lead singles player when his country plays the United States in the Davis Cup semifinals later this month in Washington. And, after today, he has a second Grand Slam semifinal berth this season, the first coming at the French Open, where he lost to Sergi Bruguera.

With all those grand thoughts floating in his head, Rafter ran to a 40-love lead in the final game of the match, serving an ace to reach match point. Overeager, he then pounded another big serve to the outside corner, and began to run to the net in victory. But the line judge made a delayed out call, and Rafter, stunned, grinned across the court at Larsson. Larsson grinned back ó clearly in agreement that the call had been inaccurate ó and Rafter collapsed on the court in mock shock.

Rafter lost three more set points finishing off his opponent, but when he did it was with a big service winner and a tip of his cap to the crowd.

"Can I have your shirt, Patrick?" screamed one fan while Rafter packed up his rackets. "Can I have your hat Patrick?"

A woman a few rows over then chimed in with a request of her own.

"Will you marry me, Patrick?" Rafter continued to grin. Less than 48 hours earlier, he had defeated Agassi in a match so draining that he had to get hours of treatment and drink gallons of fluid. Today, Rafter said his body felt fine, his tennis felt fine, his game felt fine.

So he was asked how it felt to be tennisís new playboy. He grinned. He blushed. He laughed.

"Oh, itís bloody tough."

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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