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R & R at Open: Rafter-Rusedski

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997

NEW YORK, Sept. 6óBy late this afternoon, Arthur Ashe Stadium was almost empty. But as the last fans streamed toward their cars and ushers began collecting trash, Carl Chang remained in his seat, staring at the court, lost in what might have been for his younger brother, Michael.

With Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi eliminated early in this U.S. Open, the No. 2-seeded Chang appeared on a collision course with his first Grand Slam title since capturing the 1989 French Open as a 17-year-old. But that giant opportunity slipped away today when Australian sensation Patrick Rafter dominated him in a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 semifinal victory. Rafter, seeded 13th, will meet unseeded Greg Rusedski in Sundayís final after Rusedskiís 6-1, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 comeback victory over unseeded Jonas Bjorkman.

"This may have been more of an opportunity than other chances" to win another Grand Slam title, said Michael Chang, who seemed as reflective after the match as his brother, who coaches him. "All I can tell you is that they all hurt.

"Whatís been frustrating is that you get close time and time again. Itís almost as if someoneís teasing you with something. They give you a piece of candy and then they take it away."

Chang, who said he was nervous before his quarterfinal match Thursday, said he felt "peaceful" before todayís match. But if Chang was calm, he wasnít sharp, allowing Rafter to break him in the very first game. Rafter opened the second set almost as quickly, breaking in the second game before going up 3-0.

Chang finally began to show some life in the third set, winning the first point of the first game with an amazing cross-court winner that he had to run diagonally across the court to reach. He began yelling at himself, pumping his fist and engaging the crowd, but while he won his service game, he was never able to break Rafter.

By the end of the match, he had missed all eight of his break-point opportunities, compared to Rafter, who was able to convert four of nine times.

"You never go out there expecting youíre going to beat Michael like that," said Rafter, who has become one of the best serve-and-volley players in the world. "Everything worked for me today. Every big point he had, I came up with something I usually donít come up with."

Sunday will be Rafterís sixth final this year, although he has yet to win a tournament. If he can break through anywhere, however, it appears this may be the place. Rafter has lost just one set in six matches and will be the favorite against Rusedski, a native Canadian who became a British citizen in 1995.

Rusedskiís victory was much less of a surprise than Rafterís, but not any less difficult. His march through this tournament has provided a beacon to Britain in the week of Princess Dianaís death, and if that wasnít enough pressure, today marked Rusedskiís first Grand Slam semifinal and his 24th birthday.

He also woke up Friday with severe laryngitis, needing treatment from Gwen Korovin, opera tenor Luciano Pavarottiís personal doctor.

"It was hard to breathe" Friday, said Rusedski, who had never won a match at the U.S. Open before this year. "But when I got on the court, I was fine. I was going to play no matter. In a Grand Slam, if you can step on the court, you play, because you donít get these opportunities very often."

Rusedski blazed through the first set as if powered by adrenaline, going up 5-0 before winning 6-1, but the rest of the match was not as easy for the 6-foot-3 serving specialist. After losing the next two sets, Rusedski battled back in the fourth, breaking Bjorkman in the third game. The pair stayed on serve in the fifth set until Rusedski battled back from a 40-15 deficit in the 12th game to win.

The match ended after Bjorkmanís volley skidded over the net, landing softly in front of him. With Bjorkman helpless to do little more than watch, Rusedski hit the forehand passing winner.

"Iím proud maybe I could put a smile on some peopleís faces because of the tennis," said Rusedski, who awoke early this morning to watch Princess Dianaís funeral. "But you canít compare the two things. [Tennis] is the least important thing for the country and the world at the moment."

With two lesser-known players in the menís final, Rusedskiís match is no longer even considered the most important thing at the U.S. Open Sunday. The womenís final, between 16-year-old Martina Hingis and 17-year-old Venus Williams, is expected to steal the spotlight, but Chang said he believes the fresh faces on the menís side are good for the game.

"I was hoping I would be the refreshing partóĎChang finally breaks through after nine-year draught,íā" he said in his best newscaster voice. "But I think it is great for tennis, even though I lost today. In a sense, there has been a changing of the guard in the past couple years. The game is changing."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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