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Chang's Turn to Bow Out

A day after Sampras retirement, another member of storied U.S. tennis generation plays his final Open match, a first-round loss.

August 27, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Generational shifts are taking place at the U.S. Open and Tuesday, 24 hours after the first, a second Southern California-raised champion retired from tennis.

Michael Chang, 31, followed Pete Sampras, 32, out the door, losing a first-round match to 15th-seeded Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4, in 2 hours 28 minutes.

"It's a little bit difficult to describe," said Chang, who received a warm round of applause from the crowd. "I don't know if it's going to quite hit me till maybe a few hours later. Tennis has been such a big part of my life. When you've done something so long, then all of a sudden, to maybe realize that you're not going to be doing it anymore, that's when it's going to hit me."

As it was with Sampras, Chang's goodbye was a family affair. Chang's parents, Joe and Betty, and his brother and coach, Carl, were on hand, and Joe was pleased to observe that this was the best match of Chang's retirement tour, an often difficult span that was been sprinkled with infrequent victories.

As Joe Chang, the father of one French Open champion, was talking in the hallway to reporters afterward, Jim Courier, himself a French Open winner, approached him.

Courier, a two-time champion at Roland Garros, had one of his arms in a sling because of a golf cart accident and Joe looked at him with concern.

"Are you OK?" Joe said.

"No, but I'm going to be all right. Congratulations, great career," Courier told Joe.

"You too," Joe said.

Of the vaunted foursome of Courier, Sampras, Chang and Andre Agassi, Courier was the first to retire. The 33-year-old Agassi will be the last to leave.

"I don't think any one of us would have thought he would be the last one out there -- not only playing, but winning tournaments and winning Grand Slam tournaments," Michael Chang said.

Said Agassi, who beat Alex Corretja of Spain, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, in the first round: "It's a weird feeling. You feel like you just sort of expect to leave the dance with the ones you came with, you know? When they decide it's time for them, it's a sad feeling. I don't look at Pete being gone as anything good for anybody, excluding maybe him. Same with Michael."

Chang, who earned his reputation as a tireless fighter, moves on having won the 1989 French Open at age 17 among 34 career titles. He reached the No. 2 ranking in 1996, coming within one match of No. 1. His last title was in 2000 at the UCLA tour stop.

The crowd was appreciative of Chang's typically gritty performance against the powerful Gonzalez. After a slow first set, Chang, a wild-card entrant, pushed the Chilean and played him close to even in the final three.

Chang told the crowd that he started his career here as a 15-year-old and that New York had always "welcomed me with open arms."

"Not every professional athlete gets an ovation like that from New York," Chang said. "It's special because people care a lot about you. Probably this past year, I've learned more about how much people care about me."

The Chang brothers are planning to move back to Orange County from Seattle, and Michael's representatives said he is eager to help in the training and education of tennis coaches in China.

The family had a serious medical scare this summer when Joe passed out at home, refusing to go to the emergency room because he did not want to miss the tribute to Michael at UCLA. He nearly passed out again the next day and was taken to a hospital in Orange County. Suffering from an ulcer, he had to miss the ceremony.

"I almost disappeared a couple of weeks ago," said Joe, who needed four units of blood. "Real bad internal bleeding and I passed out."

Said Carl Chang: "Oh my gosh, you look back at all 17 years and then some and almost losing my dad in L.A., it just puts it in true perspective for us."

Carl has been there with Michael through the long goodbye -- 2-10 on the ATP Tour this year, the victories coming against Nicolas Kiefer of Germany in Miami and Zack Fleishman at UCLA -- and numerous other matches at the challenger level.

"For today's match, that was the happiest I had seen him in the last couple of years," Carl said. "It was nice to see. I'm glad he went out that way."

Even though the Chang family had prepared for the moment, Michael wasn't entirely sure how he would feel after leaving the Open for the last time as a player. The USTA will honor him with a ceremony but has not announced a specific day and time.

"I don't know what it's going to feel like," Chang said of leaving. "This whole year has been bittersweet. Obviously, you're excited about moving on to other things.

"But at the same time, you love the sport of tennis. You love being out there and being able to hit a shot and scream at the top of your lungs and not be able to hear yourself because of the crowd.

"Those are the things I'll carry with me in my heart, things that I'll remember for a long, long time."



Calling It a Career

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