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This Chang--Kimberly--Is Making a Name for Herself on Tennis Court

Special to The Times

OK, before talking about what Kimberly Chang is, let’s first talk about what she is not, namely:

Related to that other Orange County teen-ager, Michael Chang, who also happens to have a pretty notable skill for hitting tennis balls over the net.

It is understandable that people often assume they are related. Beyond the name and the game, the two Changs, both 16, even share similar styles, relying on solid baseline ground strokes and formidable two-handed backhands.

Michael Chang, of Placentia, has moved past the junior circuit and is busy trading ground strokes for a living.

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“Everybody asks me if I’m related to him. Everybody!” said Kimberly Chang, a junior at Connelly High School in Anaheim. “Once in a while, I’ll say yes. I’m just playing around. I’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s so tough and everything. Having him make all this money.’ ”

Actually, she does know the other Chang family and trained with Michael and his older brother, Carl, back in the days when Michael was not even the best player in his own household. So Kimberly had a hard time last fall when Michael played David Pate, the brother of her coach, Chuck Pate, in a match at UCLA’s L.A. Tennis Center.

“I didn’t know who to root for,” she said, laughing. “And both Mr. Chang and Mr. Pate saw me there at the match.”

Things were going so badly at this time last year, Kimberly Chang considered becoming a full-time spectator. She said she almost quit. However, she changed the grip on her forehand and, eventually, her luck changed, too.

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And lately, Chang has started to solve the often troublesome task of playing tournament tennis. Last month, she reached the semifinals at the prestigious Ojai Valley tournament in the girls’ 16-and-under division, losing, 6-3, 6-1, to eventual champion Heather Willens of Los Angeles. In the quarterfinals, she beat another longtime rival, Laura Richards of Vista, for the first time.

That feat, according to Chang, meant overcoming an enormous psychological hurdle. Although she is ranked No. 54 in the nation in 16s and No. 9 in Southern California, she had been making a habit of squandering big leads against higher-ranked players.

“Even against Laura, I started to do it again,” Chang said. “I was up 6-0, 4-0 and I just stood there. I double faulted three times in a row. I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing that.’ So I think it (the win) really broke the ice. A lot of people came up to me and said that it was a good win for me. Even Laura’s father told me that.”

Chang, who lives in El Toro, hopes to carry the momentum into the Seventeen magazine Tournament of Champions at Mission Viejo, which starts today and concludes Saturday. Chang will play Mindy Weiner of Morton Grove, Ill., in today’s opening round. Other players competing from Orange County include Debbie Graham of Fountain Valley and Julie Willett of Irvine in the 18s, Keri Phebus of Newport Beach in the 16s and Page Bartelt of Mission Viejo in the 14s.

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For Chang, who is playing in her second Seventeen tournament, the short trip to Mission Viejo has special meaning because she used to be a ballgirl for such stars as Zina Garrison and Stephanie Rehe at the event when she was 10.

“My goals in tennis pretty much set in right after that,” she said.

Chang kept on working and finally won her first tournament, a four-player event in Barstow, and continued to move up the ladder and eventually acquired a national ranking. She also crossed paths again with Rehe, who by this time was playing on the pro tour.

“If there’s anyone I admire in tennis, it would be Chris Evert,” Chang said. “But that’s kind of typical. So I guess it would probably be Stephanie Rehe. We hit together on the same court at a tennis academy in San Diego. I really never thought I’d be hitting with her when I (served as a ballgirl) for her matches.”

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