Tennis: Courier thrives under Californian sun

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MICHAEL CHANG'S dogged defence of his Newsweek Cup crown collapsed in ruins here yesterday when he ran into a man who regards being No 1 in the world as something to improve on.

Jim Courier, who beat Chang 6- 4 6-4 in the first semi-final - Wayne Ferreira and Alexander Volkov were lining up for the second - was voted the Player of 1992 by his peers and accepted the acolade at the ATP Tour awards dinner on Friday night. 'The satisfaction for me is that I'm still improving,' Courier told a star-studied 700-strong gathering. 'It may not be so noticeable now to the people watching but I know it and my coach Jose Higueras knows it'.

After yesterday's battle so does Chang. The world's fifth-ranked player was fast out of the starting blocks, leading 3-1 in the first set of a match that was peppered with brilliance and bathos under cloudless Californian skies. A hitch in the Chang serve put the defending champion in trouble in the tenth game, and after a double fault had given Courier the first of five set points, Chang was firing at an even lower rate of first serves than his match average of 42 per cent.

From the moment Chang lost the first set there was little chance of his securing his first victory over his childhood rival since he beat Courier on his way to winning the Lipton title just under a year ago.

In the interim, Courier, always striving for the extra power that Chang is denied by his physique, beat Chang three times without the loss of a set. A career rivalry that will stretch into the future now stands at 5-3 in Courier's favour.

Chang did hold the interest of the 11,000 crowd by breaking back when Courier, making some sloppy errors, served for the match at 5-3 in the second, but in the next game a glorious forehand cross-court pass on the second match point ensured that a new champion will be crowned today.

It is typical of Courier that he should have come through when so many of his chief rivals were apparently falling to the seductive charms of this superb desert resort at the Hyatt Grand Champions.

Great facilities, palm trees rustled by a gentle breeze and huge crowds to puff the ego - conditions that would appear to be perfect for the world's top players. But a remarkable number of them failed to keep their eye on the ball in this, the first of the new big nine dollars 1.7m ATP tour championship tournaments.

Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic, Andre Agassi and Michael Stich all failed to reach the quarter-finals but, for some, winning has always posed a strange problem at Indian Wells. Sampras, who was first spotted here by the tournament director Charlie Pasarell as a promising 16- year-old, has never got past the third round, while Ivanisevic has won only two matches in five appearances.

Even Volkov, that talented but erratic Russian, has had his problems here in the past. 'I could not win a match here so last year I did not come,' he said.

Edberg, whose fitness is still a cause for concern to coach Tony Pickard, at least had the satisfaction of being voted the most sporting player for the third time at the dinner. Postumously, Dan Maskell received The Media Award and, in an evening filled with emotion and poignant memories, Jeannie Ashe accepted the Humanitarian Award on behalf of her late husband whose avowed goal of raising dollars 5m for AIDS research is now certain to be achieved.

Tracy Austin, who beat Katerina Maleeva on her return to the circuit here last week, has asked for a wild-card entry into the Lipton tournament which begins at Key Biscayne on Friday and is now starting to think in terms of the European season.

'With my marriage coming up and all this excitement it has been tough to think ahead,' she said. 'But it would be nice to play on European clay in Rome and Paris. But I don't know about getting a wild card for the French Open and Wimbledon. Do you think they would give me one?' With the women's game needing all the stars it can attract, it would be amazing if they did not.