Reality Wins Out, Haarhuis Falls to Chang

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beating three top-10 players in one week gave hope to Paul Haarhuis, who is ranked No. 68, and to all other rank-and-file players who have pretension to greatness.

Dreams are wonderful, but reality has a way of intervening. Haarhuis hit his glass ceiling and lost to No. 5 Michael Chang, 7-5, 6-1, 6-1, in Sunday's Newsweek Champions Cup final.

Along the way, the Dutchman gained an understanding of what it takes to find a solution to Chang.

"Michael had an answer to every one of my shots," Haarhuis said. "Then you start forcing things and you feel like you have to do more and better and closer to the lines. Then you feel like, 'Hey, I have to hit more service winners.' That is all part of what Michael's game does to you."

The mere idea of playing Chang has a way of tiring an opponent before the match begins. It's known on the tour that Chang will not allow himself to lose, he must be beaten. On a day like Sunday at the Hyatt Grand Champions, with the sun beating down and transforming the court surface into a hot plate, few players have the mental will to stay on court with Chang.

The temperature on court was officially reported to be 117 degrees, but Chang said he was told it was 130.

"They didn't want to scare anyone," he said.

Chang took every precaution to remain cool, including punching holes in his hat to allow for better circulation.

Haarhuis, 30, might have remained cooler had he been able to win the first set. He had a chance in the seventh game, with Chang serving at 3-4. Haarhuis had three break points but was beaten back by a withering assault from Chang's forehand.

Haarhuis lost not only that chance but also his serve in the next game. Chang broke in the 12th game to take the set, which would prove to be a mentally decisive turn.

"When he broke me at 6-5 to win the set, that really mentally and physically drained me a lot," Haarhuis said. "I knew that with the heat and the matches I have been playing that, if I was going to win I needed to spend the least amount of energy as possible."

Chang is nothing if not surgical in his approach. Once he gained the upper hand, he grimly pressed at every opportunity. As it happened, he created many and was greatly aided by Haarhuis, who wilted. When he got his first serve in, Chang won 95% of the points.

Haarhuis put up token resistance in the second set, holding serve only once and growing increasingly frustrated. Chang began to consider that if he didn't make any glaring errors, Haarhuis would continue to disintegrate.

The third set proved that correct. The Dutchman failed to hold serve in the set. When he broke Chang in the fourth game, the crowd showered him with applause and he jokingly raised his arms in triumph. On this day, against Chang, winning a game can be said to be a kind of victory.

For his first tournament victory of the year, Chang took home $320,000 and, more importantly, will rise to No. 4 in today's rankings, passing Boris Becker. Haarhuis will move up, probably to No. 25.

Chang's performance here may be a bellwether for what may transpire in the spring. With their losses here, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will lose points. The current No. 1, Thomas Muster, will not likely be able to defend all the points he gained on clay last year.

Chang, the spoiler, the overlooked one, looms as a possible No. 1.

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