Outsider Rafter ready for an upset

Tennis
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The Independent Online
Pat Rafter laughed when reminded that the consensus among players he has eliminated en route to the United States Open semi-finals - Andre Agassi included - ran along the lines that he was good, but unlikely to win the title.

"I have a one-in-four chance of winning, that's the way I look at it," the 24-year-old Australian said. "I've also heard that I'm going to win it too, from a lot of other people. I prefer to be an underdog, it's always easier."

Michael Chang, Rafter's opponent today, is the only survivor who was regarded as a favourite from the outset. And even the American No 2 seed was rated a long way behind his compatriot Pete Sampras, who beat him in straight sets in last year's final. With Sampras gone, the 25-year- old Chang would appear to be only a handful of steady sets away from adding to the French Open title he won as a 17-year-old in 1989.

Since that astounding arrival as a Grand Slam prodigy on the slow red clay of Paris, Chang has played his best tennis on even-paced concrete courts, only to fall short on those at the Australian Open and the ones here in New York. Moreover, he will be viewing Rafter and the winner of the contest between Greg Rusedski and Jonas Bjorkman as potentially the latest surprise in a season of upsets. Carlos Moya, of Spain, beat Chang in straight sets in the semi-finals in Melbourne, losing to Sampras in the final, and the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten was the sensation of Paris.

Chang cannot be said to have stormed through the draw, coming close to losing to the Frenchman Cedric Pioline and the Chilean Marcelo Rios in consecutive five-setters. He admitted that apprehension might have crept into his play in response to the opportunity presented by Sampras's defeat in the fourth round. "I'm not going to kid you or lie to you," Chang said, "but it is a bit of a new situation for me. Even though I'm No 2 in the world, I don't normally go into a Grand Slam favoured. This Grand Slam was no different until Pete lost. Today pressure did get to me quite a bit."

The 21-year-old Rios, a brilliant stroke-player, still has a good deal of work ahead, not least in the temperament department. Although not short of vocal support during his quarter-final yesterday, which Chang won 7- 6, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, he spent much of his time viewing the line judges as if they were additional opponents. "They made a lot of mistakes," he said. "They should have something like another system, maybe a computer, to make the calls."

Chang is aware of the threat Rafter poses. "Patrick has been playing some very tough tennis," Chang said. He should know, having lost to the Australian a couple of weeks ago in the Hamlet Cup on Long Island.

"It's a good match-up," Rafter said, whose win there reduced the margin of his head-to-heads with Chang to 2-5. "We have had some good matches," Rafter added. "I think I've always put in a hundred per cent when I'm on the court. I'm never one to stop halfway through a match and say, `I've had enough'. I just have a bit more belief in myself that I can win instead of hanging in there and getting close."

The 13th-seeded Rafter, beset by injuries in the past, has the fitness, form and maturity to make the most of his exciting potential.

The British trio of Chris Wilkinson, Danny Sapsford and Miles Maclagan have been handed the three wild-card spots for the Samsung Open, which starts at the West Hants Club in Bournemouth on Monday. They join Greg Rusedski, the only direct entry from Britain, in the 32-strong draw for this official ATP Tour event, which offers pounds 250,000 in prize money.

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