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TENNIS / FRENCH OPEN : Chang Goes From His Feat on Clay at Paris in ’89 to Feet of Clay in ’90

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time and fame are passing quickly for Michael Chang, who arrives at the scene of his greatest victory playing the worst tennis of his career.

Think this is good timing?

“It’s all been very frustrating,” Chang said. “My confidence is clearly not at the highest.”

And, apparently, neither is his physical condition. Chang wore a bandage on his left wrist as he practiced Sunday after getting tendinitis in an exhibition last week in Marseilles.

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It was only one year ago that Chang’s confidence was soaring as he sent shock waves rolling across the Seine and throughout the tennis world by winning the French Open. At 17, he became the youngest male player to win a Grand Slam.

But it is a vulnerable champion who returns to the slow red clay of Stade Roland Garros today to begin defense of his French Open crown, which is looking pretty wobbly on his head.

Since his French Open victory, Chang’s ranking has dropped from No. 5 to No. 14, a free-fall entirely attributed to a freakish injury during practice last December.

As Chang sprinted to get a ball in the corner and planted his feet, he heard something crack. The injury was diagnosed as a bone separation in his hip.

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He returned to the Assn. of Tennis Professionals tour the last week of February, hoping for the best, but experiencing the worst. Chang has won only two matches and lost five. In four of the five tournaments Chang has played, he lost his first match.

Chang moved on, searching for his game. He has not yet found it.

At Munich, Chang lost his first-round match to Petr Korda of Czechoslovakia.

“By Rome, I should be at the top of my game,” Chang said in Munich.

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He wasn’t. Chang got a first-round bye in Hamburg, West Germany, but lost to Juan Aguilera of Spain in the second round, 6-3, 6-2. Then, two weeks ago at the Italian Open in Rome, Chang lost another first-round match, 6-3, 6-3, to Jan Gunnarsson of Sweden.

As far as building up one’s confidence, Chang’s clay court tour was more like a demolition derby. What’s more, he can’t explain what’s going wrong.

“To be quite honest, I don’t know what it is, but the balls just don’t seem to go where I like them to,” Chang said. “It happens to everyone. We all have different reasons, but I will not let this break me down. I am 18, I still have at least 10 years before me.”

At least Chang is here. Only 14 of the top 20 male players will compete, with No. 1-ranked Ivan Lendl leading an impressive list of no-shows.

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Lendl, who is skipping his first Grand Slam event since the 1982 Australian Open, chose to work on his grass court game for Wimbledon. John McEnroe, Tim Mayotte and Pete Sampras withdrew because of injuries.

Brad Gilbert has played here only once in the last five years and that was in 1987. Mats Wilander withdrew for personal reasons. His father died Friday night in Sweden.

Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, ranked No. 2 and No. 3, become the top two favorites to win this year with Italian Open champion Thomas Muster another possibility.

Andre Agassi is also mentioned as someone who has a chance, although Agassi has played only one tournament since he won the Lipton International Players Championship in late March. Agassi, who plays Martin Wostenholme of Canada today, must think he can hit the ground running: He didn’t arrive until Sunday.

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Seeded 11th, Chang’s first-round match is against Cassio Motta, a 30-year-old clay court veteran from Brazil. A victory would advance him to a potential fourth-round matchup with sixth-seeded Emilio Sanchez of Spain.

But the way Chang has been playing seems to offer only a slight chance that Chang can make it even that far. Yet Chang has not given up hope of repeating what he did last year.

“Coming back and winning Roland Garros is a matter of playing my best tennis,” he said. “Last year, I probably played the best tennis in my life there. I will try my best. I want to be optimistic and think I will be able to do the same thing.”

How well Chang plays in his return to Roland Garros may hinge more on his match toughness than any lingering effects of his hip injury. Chang’s physician, Dr. Lester Lee of Huntington Beach, said Chang’s conditioning is a factor, but the hip is not.

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Tennis great Jack Kramer said that if Chang is physically fit again, there is reason to believe he can go far again this year.

“He certainly has the style of game that is always going to give Becker and Edberg fits on that court,” Kramer said. “His problems are with Mancini and Muster and real clay court players like that. But I sort of like his chances on that court.”

And one more thing, Kramer said. “He should be hungry as hell. He hasn’t done anything in a while.”

Chang finished his practice match with Jean Fleurian. He was playing on the same Centre Court where he upset Lendl in the fourth round a year ago, where he defeated Edberg in the final.

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Chang said he still can scarcely believe what happened a year ago.

“There are not many players who win Roland Garros at 17,” Chang said. “It is one of those things that after you wonder if they really happened or if it wasn’t one of those bedtime stories you tell the children before they go to sleep. I sometimes have that feeling when I look back.”

As far as his game, it’s been one long slumber party for Chang so far this year. There have been no bedtime stories with happy endings.

He might have chosen another time to defend his Grand Slam title, but he has no choice in the matter. Chang’s days on clay are here again, ready or not.

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