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MICHAEL CHANG : 15-Year-Old From Placentia Makes Name for Himself With Upset Win in U.S. Open

September 02, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Michael Chang walked down the steps to meet the press.

"Don't worry," a tour official told Chang. "It's just a small group of writers. They're very nice people."

A dazed Chang said nothing. Later, a passer-by congratulated Chang, and asked if he remembered learning how to play tennis as a little boy in St. Paul, Minn. Again, Chang said nothing.

Suddenly, by virtue of a 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 first-round victory over veteran Paul McNamee of Australia, Chang had become transformed into a very important person on the first day of the U.S. Open here Tuesday.

After his initial press conference, Chang's meeting with a small group of writers quickly turned into a large-scale gathering, which included reporters from major papers and magazines.

All were trying to learn about the 15-year-old from Placentia, a town whose most recent athletes to achieve prominence were swimmer Janet Evans and softball pitcher Michele Granger.

Evans rose to fame when she set two freestyle records in Clovis, Calif., this summer, and Granger solidified her status as the best young female softball pitcher in the country at the recent Pan American Games.

Chang, who recently moved to Placentia from La Costa, made his name at the National Tennis Center by becoming the youngest male player to win a main-draw match in the Open era.

Tracy Austin was the youngest ever to win a main-draw match, when she did so at 14 years, 8 months and 19 days. Chang won't turn 16 until February.

In defeating McNamee, Chang beat a player 17 years older than himself. That feat is accomplished regularly in women's tennis, but it's much more rare in the men's game. And, McNamee, although now No. 130 in the world, had been ranked as high as 24th.

Afterward, Chang, ranked almost off the scale at No. 970, admitted that the idea of actually playing and winning a match in the U.S. Open hadn't sunk in yet.

Previously, his finest accomplishment was a victory over Jim Courier of Dade City, Fla., for the USTA boys' 18 national championship at Kalamazoo, Mich., in August. That victory gave him a wild-card spot into the Open main draw.

Chang, still stunned by the whole day, did remember that much. He drew blanks on where he started to play (it was in St. Paul, Minn.) and when the Chang family moved to California (it was 1979).

His mother, Betty, was there to fill in the holes, stepping in for his father and coach, Joe, who was in North Carolina on business.

"He's just a little boy and we like to keep him that way," Betty Chang said. "We don't want to trouble him with adult things. There's no rush, as long as he's happy playing tennis."

Michael, too, doesn't seem eager to rush into the adult world of professional tennis. Even if he should knock off his second-round opponent, Nduka Odizor of Nigeria, Chang won't beg his parents to let him turn pro.

"I still think about doing something else," he said, once the crowd cleared away. "There's a lot of years ahead of me, and what if tennis doesn't work out for me?"

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