Chang joins Sampras on sidelines of tennis

Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

NEW YORK If Andre Agassi is feeling a little lonely out there, with contemporaries Pete Sampras and Michael Chang leaving tennis, youngster Andy Roddick would be more than happy to make a date for the U.S. Open final.

One by one, the generation of American stars who grew up playing junior tennis against each other in the 1980s and wound up collecting Grand Slam singles titles together for more than a decade is calling it quits.

Chang lost his final match as a pro Tuesday at the U.S. Open in a far more muted farewell than Sampras' retirement announcement the night before. Jim Courier, the first of the ol' gang to stop, called Chang's match from the TV booth.

And Agassi? He isn't done yet, not by a long shot.

Still calibrating points perfectly, lacing lines with hit-it-as-soon-as-possible groundstrokes, the 33-year-old Agassi began his run as the oldest top-seeded player in the Open era by beating Alex Corretja 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round.

''It's a weird feeling. You just sort of expect to leave the dance with the ones you came with. When they decide that it's time for them, it's a sad feeling,'' said Agassi, the 1995 and 1999 Open champion.

''I'm certainly proud to still be doing this, this long and at this level.''

Roddick, who turns 21 Saturday, is just getting started, and he handled Tim Henman 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3. It was a matchup worthy of Week 2 at a major rather than Day 2, but four-time Wimbledon semifinalist Henman missed two months after shoulder surgery in February and has slipped to 34th in the rankings.

While acknowledging he would have preferred an easier opening opponent, Roddick played down the significance of the victory.

''I haven't done anything yet, man. I'm just in the second round,'' said Roddick, 30-2 since pairing with Agassi's former coach, Brad Gilbert. ''It's always going to be Andre's tournament until he retires.''

Roddick is the first player since Agassi in 1995 to enter the U.S. Open with 20 match wins on the summer hard-court circuit. The lone blemish on the youngster's 20-1 record came courtesy of Henman at Washington, D.C.

This time, the Englishman was tentative on key points, including a double-fault followed by a forehand long that ceded the opening set. When Henman served for the second set at 5-4, Roddick broke at love, helped by another double-fault and his own two spectacular passing shot return winners.

Roddick dominated the tiebreaker, including a service winner at 140 mph, and a service break followed by a hold at love to 3-1 in the third set wrapped it up.

''In my opinion, he's playing better than anyone in the world right now. That's stating the obvious,'' Henman said. ''He is going to be tough to beat. He's so confident right now. He's got such a big game, and he's using it very well.''

The fourth-seeded Roddick would like to stick around just a little longer than he has been at majors. He was a semifinalist at the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year, and his past two U.S. Opens ended with quarterfinal losses to the eventual champion, including Sampras in 2002.

''My day will come as far as Grand Slams go. I believe that,'' Roddick said. ''I'm not going to rush myself.''

While Sampras waited a year after his last match beating Agassi in the Open final to tell the world he was finished, Chang said at the beginning of the year this would be it. And unlike the half-hour tribute to Sampras replete with a choir and speeches, there was no big celebration of Chang's career Tuesday, although the U.S. Tennis Association has talked with him about doing something next week.

Only a few thousand fans were on hand for the start of his 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 loss to the No. 15-seeded Fernando Gonzalez, but, as always, Chang gave it his all.

''On court, it would be nice to be able to be remembered as a person that gave his best win, lose or draw,'' said Chang, whose career highlight was winning the 1989 French Open at age 17. ''It's going to be tough leaving tennis.''

A three-time French Open champion, Gustavo Kuerten, was eliminated 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (1) by qualifier Dmitry Tursunov, who was born in Russia and now lives in Roseville, Calif. In the sixth game of the last set, action was delayed for a few minutes while a heckler was removed by security at Kuerten's request.

Three other seeded men lost: No. 21 Felix Mantilla ousted by Ivo Karlovic, the 6-foot-10 Croatian who stunned Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon No. 29 Feliciano Lopez and No. 32 Vince Spadea.

Among the women, Jennifer Capriati overpowered Cristina Torrens Valero 6-0, 6-1, while French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne started off with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Aniko Kapros, a qualifier who upset her in the first round at Roland Garros last year. No. 10 Magdalena Maleeva, No. 16 Elena Bovina, No. 21 Anna Pistolesi, and No. 31 Alexandra Stevenson were the seeded players exiting early.

Chang used to be highly seeded, reaching No. 2 in the rankings. He would have made it to No. 1 had he beaten Sampras in the 1996 U.S. Open final.

But now, at 31, Chang is step slower, can't get to the shots he used to and won just two matches this year.

Still, Chang showed plenty of fire Tuesday. He rocked back on his heels and pumped his arms repeatedly after a backhand passing winner down the line in the first game of the second set against Gonzalez. He whipped his racket behind his back on the run to win one exchange, and yelled, ''Yes!'' when a second straight double-fault by Gonzalez landed wide to hand Chang the third set.

TV analyst John McEnroe called Chang ''the ultimate hustler dug as deep as anyone you'll see on a tennis court,'' but he also noted that Chang is ''the opposite now of Sampras. Sampras went out winning, winning his last match in the final of the U.S. Open. Chang has been a shell of himself the last few years.''

That's certainly not the case with Agassi.

Agassi is outlasting other members of his age group and outplaying most of the younger set, too. He's 40-7 in 2003 with four titles, including his eighth major in January at the Australian Open, tying for sixth most in history.

Never before had a man his age risen to No. 1 in the ATP Tour computer rankings.

''For me, I have to answer that question a lot: 'Is this still what I want to be doing?' I ask it every day, one way or another,'' Agassi said. ''I have a strong sense of obligation to this game for everything it's given to me.''

Against Corretja, twice a French Open finalist, Agassi crafted a 36-16 edge in winners. Agassi faced just three break points, saving each one with a running forehand winner, and two when the Spaniard shanked shots on a windy afternoon.

Corretja was ranked No. 2 in 1999, but now is 102nd, and he couldn't do much to slow Agassi.

Neither, it seems, can Father Time.

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