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Stars Add Spice to L.A. Open : Tennis: Chang is seeded No. 1, but focus is on Becker and Agassi.

August 01, 1994|WENDY WITHERSPOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it the new and improved Los Angeles Open.

Typically, attending the L.A. Open meant watching Michael Chang wear down a few court surfaces every day before losing in the final. The past two years it has meant watching Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands serve his way to the title.

But this year, the $325,000 tournament, which begins today at the L.A. Tennis Center at UCLA, promises to be different for two reasons: Boris Becker and Andre Agassi.

"It's definitely a rivalry that people seem to get excited about," Agassi said. "Every time me and Boris play, it just seems to be the match of the tournament."

Ideally for tournament organizers, second-seeded Becker and third-seeded Agassi would meet in Saturday's semifinals. Top-seeded Chang is in the other half of the bracket, with fourth-seeded Alexander Volkov of Russia and fifth-seeded Krajicek.

Although it is premature to talk about the semifinals before the tournament, there is little doubt Becker-Agassi would be the featured matchup.

These players share much: They burst onto the scene as teen-agers and achieved pop idol status in their respective countries before struggling with their games.

Agassi, ranked No. 20 on the ATP tour, emerged in 1988 at age 18, when he advanced to the semifinals of the French Open and the U.S. Open and was ranked No. 3 in the world. Since then, the 1992 Wimbledon champion attracts such a large following at tournaments that it sometimes is difficult for him to fight his way through the crowd to get to practice courts.

Agassi was hampered by a wrist injury last season before undergoing surgery in December. He returned in February and won a tournament at Scottsdale, his last title before he won Sunday at Toronto.

The last time Agassi played the L.A. Open was in 1988, when he lost in the final to Mikael Pernfors of Sweden. Agassi will play his first-round match against No. 84 Nicklas Kulti of Sweden on Tuesday night.

Becker, the reclusive German star, won the first of his three Wimbledon titles in 1985 at 17. Becker had his best year in 1989, winning his third Wimbledon title as well as the U.S. Open. He reached the No. 1 ranking briefly after winning the Australian Open in 1991.

Becker, ranked ninth, has never played in the L.A. Open. He has returned from a recent leg injury, which prevented him from playing in the Players Limited International in Toronto last week. He will play No. 106 Grant Stafford of South Africa in a first-round match Tuesday.

The Becker-Agassi rivalry is more intriguing because they shared a common coach: Nick Bollettieri, who guided Agassi for 10 years until they split in 1993. Bollettieri began coaching Becker this year.

Agassi is 7-3 against Becker. Their most memorable match, however, was won by Becker, a 6-7, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 Davis Cup victory that spanned two days in Munich in 1989 and helped West Germany to a 3-2 victory.

Although Becker has not beaten Agassi in their seven matches since 1990, a matchup in the L.A. Open would be a tournament highlight.

With the focus on Becker and Agassi, top-seeded Chang is being overshadowed. Chang, who won the 1989 French Open at 17, lost in the L.A. Open final in 1989, 1990 and 1993.

Chang's half of the draw seems easier than Becker's and Agassi's. Chang, ranked sixth, will play 91st-ranked Mark Petchey of England on Tuesday.

Krajicek, ranked 26th, will play wild-card entry Michael Joyce, ranked 168th, in a first-round match tonight. Krajicek gained momentum entering the tournament with a 2-6, 7-5, 7-6, 7-5 Davis Cup victory over top-ranked Pete Sampras last month.

Sixth-seeded Jason Stoltenberg of Australia might be the player to watch. Stoltenberg, who likely will move up from his No. 33 ranking today, advanced to the final of a tournament at Washington last month before losing to Stefan Edberg, 6-4, 6-2.

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