Chang inches towards historic win

US Open: A longer racket has revitalised an American's title prospects while a double champion is slowly raising his game; Simon O'Hagan sees a resurgence in the youngest male Grand Slam champion
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The Independent Online
SINCE the Open era began, the longest any player has ever gone between winning Grand Slam titles is seven years. That feat, if it can be so called, was achieved by Arthur Ashe, winner of the US Open in 1968, but nothing after that until the Wimbledon of 1975. The challenge facing Michael Chang is believing that he can bridge a gap that is almost as big, and widening all the time.

It may be, though, that this year's US Open offers the 23-year-old American, seeded No 5, his best chance yet of ensuring that the French Open he won in 1989 does not end up as his only Grand Slam title. While Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras continue to be treated as if the rest of the field here were taking part in a separate competition, Chang has shown, for those who care to look, that anyone who comes up against him is going to have a huge battle on his hands.

In the first round he demolished Gianluca Pozzi, of Italy, with the loss of only one game. In the second he showed typical resilience in recovering from a set down to see off another Italian, Stefano Pescosolido. Today in the third round he has an eminently winnable match against Todd Woodbridge, of Australia, before a likely meeting against the the big-serving Dutchman Richard Krajicek in round four. The quarter-final could see him up against Thomas Muster, of Austria, in what would be a repeat of this year's final at the French Open, the tournament that reminded us that Chang was still very much around.

Sampras in the semi-final or Agassi in the final would, of course, be a different proposition to anything that might have gone before, but Chang's worth can be gauged from the part he has played in recent US Open history. For four consecutive years from 1991 it took the eventual champion to knock him out, and in the last three years (against Stefan Edberg in 1992, Sampras in 1993, and Agassi in 1994), these matches have been the turning- points for the men who won them - immensely hard-fought contests which could have gone either way and confirmed Chang as one of the most obdurate forces the game has ever known.

What is more, these qualities seem to be hardening, and that in itself is a tribute to a player who, having become the youngest ever winner of a Grand Slam event at the age of 17 years and three months, could be forgiven for thinking he might never again attain those heights. Perhaps the key to this is that Chang is clearly not haunted by the achievements of his extreme youth. As it happens, his defeat of Pescosolido on Friday marked the eighth anniversary of his becoming the youngest ever winner of a match in a Grand Slam tournament - at the 1987 US Open he beat Paul McNamee of Australia at the age of 15 years and six months. In tennis terms that is an age away - Miloslav Mecir and Ramesh Krishnan were among the quarter-finalists at Flushing Meadows that year - but when Chang was asked about this he said: "Sometimes I think, you know, this is my eighth year on the tour and it has gone just like that.''

John McEnroe calls Chang one of the great over-achievers of modern men's tennis, by which he means that at 5ft 9in and 10st 10lb he has no right to be competing on level terms with men who are almost always far bigger and stronger than him. In attempting to correct this imbalance Chang has worked hard on his physique - which in terms of mobility of course has its advantages - and since the beginning of last year has taken the unusual step of playing with a longer than normal racket - 28 inches compared with the standard 27. He plays more aggressively, while the racket has helped him generate increased power on his serve - still not up to the speed of a Sampras, but at 120mph-plus enough to stop opponents getting on top of it as they once did.

Pescosolido said he noticed a big difference. "He is serving more aces and hitting it much deeper to the right-hand court." Chang wasn't giving it quite so much credit. "I don't think it is necessarily so much the speed. I think a lot depends on how accurate you are. You can ace a guy with an 85mph serve. John McEnroe was really good at that, placing the serve just to set up the point. If you are going to serve at 140mph, maybe it becomes a factor. But the players out here have seen so many 120mph serves that it is just everyday tennis.''

It is in Chang's nature to play things down. "I look at it that I go out and play my best and everything else is really in God's hands." But he is looking forward to the day when he can add to his Grand Slam collection - double it in fact. "After you win your first Grand Slam you are hungry for more." A second helping is long overdue.