Tennis: Chang and Becker in final battle

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The Independent Online

Michael Chang has only Boris Becker to beat to end his seven-year wait for a second grand slam title after trouncing the defending champion, Andre Agassi, in straight sets in the Australian Open semi-finals in Melbourne yesterday.

However, Becker, who won the title in 1991, will be no pushover after beating the unseeded Australian veteran Mark Woodforde 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 in only 1hr 38min to set up a final against the 23-year-old world No 5. Chang, who won 6-1, 6-4, 7-6, mastered the almost gale-force conditions better than his compatriot and was happy to play a waiting game as Agassi unleashed a string of uncharacteristic errors.

Chang not only used his new, longer racket to devastating effect with 13 aces but was all over the court, running down potential winners, varying the pace of the game with clever top-spin and waiting for the Agassi mistakes.

Agassi obliged and conceded that the wind was a nightmare. "It was one of the windiest days I've ever played in a grand slam tournament," he said. "The wind was kind of playing havoc out there. In a windy situation, a player with a lot of footwork like Chang has the advantage."

Agassi, who had stumbled down a spiral staircase before his first-round match and injured his knee, said he felt flat, a feeling reflected in an astonishing 60 unforced errors. "I don't think anything has been 100 per cent the whole tournament," said Agassi, who played three gruelling five-setters on his way to the semi-final.

"Sometimes your eyes are bigger than your stomach," Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach, said of his belief that his charge could win this tournament again. "His body just didn't have it for him today. I think he was tired after playing 22 sets in this tournament. The adrenalin pulled him through a few matches but today he hit the wall."

Down two sets, Agassi showed only glimpses of the form that saved him from defeat in the quarter-final against Jim Courier, a win that gave him the points to wrest back the No 1 spot from Pete Sampras.

The Las Vegan battled back from an eight-game losing streak in the second set to salvage some pride, and then broke Chang's booming serve in the third to set up a 4-1 lead.

But Agassi's errors kept mounting and his game cracked beneath the weight of them midway through the third set when he hit a forehand long to give Chang the break back and send the match into a tie-break, which Chang took 7-1.

Chang, who is striving for a second grand slam title after winning the French Open as a 17-year-old, said no one could rest on their ranking. "I think it shows the depth of men's tennis now. If you are No 1 in the world it does not mean you are safe any more."

Despite the crushing nature of his defeat, Agassi still backed Becker for his second title here. "I think Boris has a game that can take Chang's speed out out of the equation to a certain degree and a guy like Boris serves well. When he's holding, he's good enough to beat anybody."

Becker, the fourth seed, was brutal in his defeat of Woodforde, who had surprised everyone, including himself, in winning his way to a first grand slam semi-final at the 38th attempt.

Becker ignored sentiment and a partisan crowd to blast Woodforde off the court, appropriately wrapping up the Centre Court match with two aces in a third-set whitewash.

"Boris had one of those days," Woodforde said, "when probably God could have been out there on the other end and he would have beaten Him easily."

The 28-year-old German, who has not won a grand slam tournament since his 1991 victory at Flinders Park, was asked afterwards how hungry he was for a sixth grand slam title. "Since I haven't been eating for the last couple of years, I'm quite hungry. I was quite close last year at Wimbledon and I couldn't manage it, but I'm in the final again and I'm going to take another shot at it," he said.

But the world No 4, who has put behind him a run of poor form at the Australian Open since winning the title, now comes up against an in-form player who has not dropped a set in six matches on the way to a third grand slam final.

n England's Martin Lee and James Trotman are through to the boys' doubles final at the Australian Open. They defeated the Swedish pair Matthias Hellstrom and Bjorn Rehnqvist 7-5 6-2 in the semi-finals yesterday. Lee, 18, and his 16-year-old partner, Trotman, won the boys' doubles at Wimbledon last year.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 27