No big bang for Chang

Michael Chang signs autographs after his first round loss against Fabrice Santoro. When Chang walked off, following his last match at Roland Garros, fans rose to applaud an aging player, whose greatest moment came at 17 on the same stage. — Pic. PASCAL LE SEGRETAIN/GETTY IMAGES-

MICHAEL CHANG'S French Open finale was forgotten the moment he lost, as thoughts turned to 1989.

MICHAEL CHANG'S French Open finale was forgotten the moment he lost, as thoughts turned to 1989.

When he walked off centre court following his last match at Roland Garros, French fans rose to applaud an aging player whose greatest moment came at 17 on the same rust-coloured stage.

The worldly Chang knows that a standing ovation for an American in Paris is a rare thing, and it left him fighting back tears.

Chang's game has slipped so badly that he was beaten 7-5, 6-1, 6-1 by an opponent with a seven-match losing streak, fellow 30-something Fabrice Santoro. But the post match tribute removed much of the sting.

"This tournament has been so special to me," Chang told the crowd, his voice breaking. "The funny thing is that in my 16-year career, I've only cried twice, and both times were on this court."

He first wept in '89, when he mounted a remarkable run to his only Grand Slam title. Cramps reduced him to serving underhand in the round of 16, but he still managed to beat Ivan Lendl. In the final he upset Stefan Edberg to become the youngest men's Grand Slam champion.

"I played a lot of great chess when I won in '89," he said.

"You tell a story like that to your children. The next evening, the children say, `Can you tell that to me again, daddy? And let me know, is that a true story, or are you just making it up?'"

Chang, 31, would have scripted his departure to include a few rounds of victories. But he has won only one match in 2003 and admits he's wearing down, which is why he plans to retire after the U.S. Open.

"The daily grind of going out there, working day in, day out, surely takes its toll after a while," he said.

Chang seemed inexhaustible when he made his French Open debut as a 16-year-old in 1988. He lost in the third round to John McEnroe, but the next year he became the first U.S. man to win at Roland Garros since Tony Trabert in 1955.

"At the time he was very young, he was very slim," said Santoro, who won the Roland Garros juniors that year. "I've seen pictures again recently. It's really surprising the way he won the final, the way he beat Edberg, his courage, his will to fight in that tournament."

Chang was part of a remarkable generation of Americans that included Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. He was the first of them to win a major title but hasn't won another — at least not yet.

"After having won in '89, I would have felt that there would at least be a few more," Chang said. "I've still got hopefully Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Hey, you know, miracles can happen."

He proved that once already. Davenport's priorities

Lindsay Davenport may be returning to Roland Garros for the first time in three years but instead of honing her claycourt skills in the run up to the Grand Slam, the American got married.

"Obviously I made the decision to get married and enjoy that. It's never going to be one I regret," Davenport said.

While her rivals were doing the rounds on the claycourt circuit to prepare for the French Open, Davenport decided to take some time out in April and marry Jon Leach, the brother of her former coach Rick.

Before her first match in Paris, the three-times Grand Slam champion — she is only missing the French crown — had not played competitively since losing the Amelia Island final over a month ago.

Davenport said she had not been tempted to take her rackets with her when she went on honeymoon.

"I didn't think my husband would like it if on my honeymoon I was pulling him off to the practice court," said the American. "It probably wouldn't have gone over too well. You know, hopefully you only do it (get married) once in your life so I didn't think that I needed to go practice. My husband loves playing but at the time I didn't want to."

Persistent injuries have prevented the popular American appearing on Parisian clay for the last two years, but she feels she is now fitter than ever before.

Back spasms cut short her first round match in 2000 and a long-term knee injury forced the 26-year-old to skip the event for the last two years. She underwent surgery on the knee in January 2002.

"I've been practising well and have been working out very hard," said Davenport. "I wouldn't have come if I felt I wasn't going to be able to play at all. I haven't felt my knee once since I've come back from the surgery or felt any trepidation at all on court. Unless I injure it again, the knee should be fine the rest of my life.

Heavier balls

Are the balls heavier at this year's French Open or not?

The question caused most of the post-match conversation here after the first-round matches.

No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, like many, is convinced they are.

"The balls were heavier this year than I've ever played with here before," was Hewitt's comment.

No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero agreed.

More so than last year, the ball "gains speed as it comes," said Ferrero, the 2002 runner-up. "It seems to remain behind. It takes more strength to make it go through."

French player Fabrice Santoro, before ousting retiring former champion Michael Chang, penned a letter to L'Equipe newspaper to publicly complain about the balls, saying they cramp the style of attacking players.

"This year, the balls are limp and heavy, which is obviously not going to help (attackers) impose their game."

Jennifer Capriati, the 2001 women's champion, could feel a difference while beating Joannette Kruger in straight sets.

"If you're used to making winners, it's not happening as much because the balls are heavier," Capriati said.

Tournament organisers say that if the balls feel weighted this year, it could be the weather's fault. Wet, humid conditions probably left the clay courts damp, slowing the pace of shots, said Roland Garros sports director Stephane Simiane.

"It's the same rubber, it's the same felt," Simiane said in a telephone interview. He said this year's balls were identical to those used last year, and were produced by the same tennis ball company Roland Garros has used for the past five years. "It's exactly the same."

Nonetheless, players' complaints were being taken seriously and several balls used in first-round matches had been forwarded to the company for testing, Simiane said.

Andy Roddick was certain testing was unnecessary, even after he lost his opening match for the second year running to Sargis Sargsian 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

"I think I had a lot more to do with it than the conditions," Roddick said.

Hingis returns

Martina Hingis made a French Open comeback, but only as a spectator.

Hingis, who has said her career is probably over because of persistent injuries, visited Roland Garros to watch some of the first-round action.

But that is the extent of her involvement with tennis these days.

She spends much of her time skiing, horseback riding and studying English, said Lisa Chaffey, a representative with Octagon, Hingis' management company.

"She's happy with what she's doing in her life," Chaffey said. "She's enjoying her time."

The winner of five Grand Slam titles, 22-year-old Hingis recently bought a new horse, and has competed in small equestrian events, Chaffey said. She's also taking an English class in Zurich.

Chaffey said it's premature to list Hingis as retired. "You can say that in the next six to 12 months she can't envision herself being back on the tour," she said. "But we're not ready to make a retirement announcement."

Hingis said earlier this year she was ready to retire after operations to her ankles in 2001 and 2002.

Dokic's rethink

Jelena Dokic is considering reverting to Australian nationality to have a chance to take part in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"I'm not even eligible to play Fed Cup or the Olympics right now," she said.

The Yugoslav-born Dokic first competed as an Australian after her family moved there in 1994, but she took Yugoslav citizenship in 2001 to protest against what she considered as a lack of support from her adopted country.

The 20-year-old, who played at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, said: "I'd love to play the Olympics. I played it once already and I was young, it was a good experience for me."

But to do so, Dokic would have to switch back to being Australian as International Tennis Federation (ITF) rules make it impossible to enter the competition under two different nationalities.

"It's something that I'm thinking about," she said. "No one else is going to influence my decision. You know I'm sure they would like me to go back. I think it would be a great thing for Australian tennis too."

Players benefit

With the rapid rise of the euros against the dollar, winners at the French Open will be more richly rewarded than ever at this edition.

The European currency reached the highest point in its history since introduction in 1999, heading for 1.20 dollars.

That means that the men's champion will collect slightly over 1 million in dollars from 800,000 euros if the present trends continue. Due to the rise in the currency, the French will surpass the U.S.

Open — which pays winners 900,000 dollars — as the most lucrative payday in tennis.

Philosophical Pierce

Mary Pierce has managed to absorb her earliest career loss at the French Open, just three years after winning the title. The 28-year-old says that she thought in 2000 that things could be changing in her game.

"When I won the French, I really started feeling like I was starting to play my best tennis — starting to," said Pierce, who is now 9-9 this season.

"That was very exciting for me to know that I had so much more room for improvement. I know that that's still there. You know, I don't think I've played my best tennis yet."

Pierce was plagued with various injuries after her Paris triumph, but said the defeat in the first round to 2002 quarter-finalist Clarissa Fernandez of Argentine was due entirely to poor play.

End in sight for Seles

Facing up to her earliest ever Grand Slam exit three-time French Open champion Monica Seles conceded that she was fighting a losing battle to stay on the court.

The 29-year-old, who fought her way back following an absence of over two years after being stabbed in the back by a fanatical Steffi Graf fan in Germany 10 years ago, slumped 6-4, 6-0 in just under an hour to hard-hitting Russian Nadia Petrova.

It was the second time in two weeks that the American veteran went down to 76th-ranked Petrova after retiring in Rome with a left foot injury which she admits has become unbearable.

After one battle to return to the court, surgery is something Seles is loath to consider at this stage in her career.

"Realistically I know I'm in the later stages of my career. I don't have the luxury of taking five or six months off," she said.

"At the same time I don't want to have the surgery to put a screw in my foot, I am trying everything. I mean you think five months off, surgery, that's another three months of training.

"Lindsay (Davenport) has done it. She's two years younger than I am. It could be done but I just don't think I would have that uphill challenge in me to do it.

"This year really since January has been very difficult. It's been a struggle. I think I do have to give it a break and then reassess what I want to do after how my foot responds to it. It's one of these things, it's your bone there's not much you can do just got to give it time."

Seles, one of only two women ever to win a hat-trick of titles here between 1990-1992 before being attacked, has never done worse than a quarter-final finish in her 10 previous appearances at Roland Garros.

But she ruled out making a rash decision on her future.

"I'm a positive person. I'll try not to give up. I mean, I've faced worse stuff. This is not the way I would like to leave. I do think if I'm healthy I can play good tennis and I won't give up. I'm hard-headed but I understand that I just have to give it time.

"I wasn't coming here with too many expectations — obviously my wish to play is not matching my performance and I just have to accept that," said Seles.

"I'd definitely like to play, but if I'm at the level I'm at today you definitely won't see me," she said on whether she would compete in Wimbledon.

Rios disappoints

Former world number one Marcelo Rios suffered yet another early French Open disappointment when he was forced out of his first round match against Croat Mario Ancic through injury.

"It hurts in my arm and shoulder when I serve," said the Chilean, who withdrew at 6-1, 1-0 to his opponent.

"I decided to give it a try here but it's been hurting since last week," said Rios, who had taken some time off in April because of lingering fitness problems.

He was part of the Chile team, which won the World Team Cup in Duesseldorf but lost his singles match in the final against the Czech Republic.

Rios missed the French Open last year because of tendinitis in the knee. He lost in the first round in 2000 and the second round in 2001.

Quizzed over eating habits

A painfully-thin Daniela Hantuchova faced a barrage of questions about her eating habits after she lost in the second round at the French Open.

The 20-year-old ninth seed was outlasted 7-6, 4-6, 9-7 by American Ashley Harkleroad and was then immediately quizzed about her appearance and diet.

Standing 1.81 metres tall and weighing just 54 kilograms, Hantuchova is slender at the best of times. But she has lost weight this year and her gaunt face bears little resemblance to the smiling photo which appears in the WTA's Player Guide.

Recently, the Slovak's coach — Briton Nigel Sears — told reporters he was a little concerned about his charge's appearance.

Hantuchova said she had no eating problems but admitted she was finding it difficult to put on weight. "I try to eat calories before the matches," she said. "But as you see, when I play long matches I just burn so much that it's really hard to get it all back."

Daughter of a computer scientist father and toxicologist mother, the Slovak said she had not changed her diet and blamed the weight loss on her schedule.

"I am really blessed that I can eat whatever I want," she said. "It is just that I've been working really hard before this season because I wanted to be physically prepared as best as possible. I just burned more calories than I got actually in my body. But it is something that, you know, it will come back soon. I am really, really glad I can eat whatever I want."

She stressed that her weight had no impact on her performance. "I think I proved coming back from 5-1 down (in the third set to lead 6-5) that I am physically fit," she said. "I felt well on the court. I think more than anything the mental side was not right."

Kafelnikov may quit

Yevgeny Kafelnikov is again considering calling it quits at the end of the season after being beaten in the second round of the French Open for the second year in succession.

"It's a big disappointment if only because I might not be back next year," the Russian said after his 6-4, 3-6, 6-0, 6-7, 6-4 loss to Brazil's Flavio Saretta.

"I was setting up a goal for myself, that if I was able to win tournaments like I did in the past, I would continue. But so far no good results came this year. I just made a commitment to myself that I would continue through the end of the year and then we'll see," he added.

The former world number one said he would not want to continue playing at a level so far from his very best.

"I have no desire to lose in the first, second round consistently in other tournaments because I've done that for 12 years and it's not me," he said.

"Personally I think I belong with the top. I don't belong with the 20, 30 or 40 ranking."

The 1996 French Open champion, currently ranked 18th in the world, had already announced he might retire after Russia won the Davis Cup against France in December, but eventually decided to give it one more year.

"I was serious about it. But the fact is that I was seriously injured with my leg. After I had surgery in December, I started feeling physically better," he explained.

Fashion-savvy Serena

Fashion-savvy Serena Williams is fed up with people beating her to the market with designs before she has had a chance to get her own on the production line.

"I come up with these fabulous <147,7,0>designs and then I swear I see someone wearing them in People magazine and that's really discouraging," Williams said with a laugh.

The world number one has raised a few eyebrows with her bizarre ensembles over the past 12 months. At last year's French Open, the American captured the mood of the soccer World Cup by adorning a replica Cameroon kit, which included knee high gold socks.

While Williams adhered to the all-white rule at Wimbledon, she stirred yet another commotion at the U.S. Open.

She first appeared in a tight black all-in-one catsuit, only to swap it in the latter stages of the tournament for one that she dubbed the "pink panther outfit."

"You need to act quickly to get things out there because they say that whenever you are thinking of an idea, two other people are thinking of exactly the same thing," said Williams, who lists her occupation as actress, model and athlete.

"So if you don't get your ideas out there quickly enough, someone else will. I've witnessed it several times."

By her own standards, Williams has chosen to wear rather sedate creations so far this season as negotiations continue for a new clothes deal.

Currently signed with sportswear manufacturers Puma, Williams added: "We are all entrepreneurs in our own way. Our parents brought us up to reach for the highest goals, set our goals higher then anyone. So for me tennis isn't everything as I have my fashion company."

Harkleroad comes of age

All golden hair and dazzling white teeth, American darling Ashley Harkleroad revealed a core of true grit to eliminate Hantuchova.

Dubbed `Kourna-Copy' after the feeding-frenzy her looks and marketability provoke, the youngster proved beyond doubt there is more to her than good looks and glamour.

To date, Harkleroad had made more headlines with her skimpy tennis outfits and likeness to Anna Kournikova than her on-court prowess. Her victory against Hantuchova suggests that is about to change.

Known as `Pebbles' after the cartoon daughter of Fred Flintstone — she was born in the small Georgia town which shares a name with the prehistoric family — Harkleroad slugged it out with her Slovak oppo<147,8,1>nent from the start, never giving way. A U.S. under-18 junior champion aged 15, she is making her Roland Garros main draw debut this year and is already a firm favourite with the French fans.

Navratilova speaks out

Serve up any topic for Martina Navratilova, and she's happy to take a shot at it.

She did so at the French Open, offering opinions regarding Annika Sorenstam, Vijay Singh and the mixed-doubles team of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.

Her assessments: Sorenstam is the best. Singh is not.

And Agassi-Graf would have had their hands full at Roland Garros against one team in particular that includes a certain famous left-hander.

Navratilova, 46, and Leander Paes won their opening match in mixed doubles. Navratilova said it's too bad Graf's pregnancy prevented Agassi-Graf from entering doubles at Roland Garros.

"I know we would have played them," Navratilova said. "That would have been the match of the tournament, I think. Neither one was really much of a specialist in doubles. So the two of them together, I would have liked our chances. No matter how great Andre and Steffi are, it would have been more difficult for them in the mixed, but it would have been fun."

Navratilova applauded Sorenstam, who recently became the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour. Sorenstam missed the cut at the Colonial, but Navratilova said the performance was still an admirable response to Singh's claim that a woman didn't belong in the tournament.

"She held up beautifully," Navratilova said. "To me that shut up Vijay Singh. He'll never say another word about her not belonging, I'll guarantee you that."

Sorenstam, who shot 5 over par, made "the best statement that anybody ever made" in response to Singh, Navratilova said.

"That just totally throws his comments out of the water as completely inappropriate. She definitely belonged out there as a golfer. From tee to green she played the best golf out there. She couldn't putt because the pressure was the biggest pressure anybody has ever had on them. No (golfer) ever had that much pressure on them — not Tiger Woods, not Jack Nicklaus, nobody."

Navratilova knows about pressure. She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including two at the French Open. This year she's playing women's and mixed doubles at Roland Garros.

She and Svetlana Kuznetsova have won three doubles titles this year, and she teamed with Paes to win mixed doubles at the Australian Open, making her the oldest Grand Slam champion ever.

Given her achievements, the reception she received playing on court 2 was predictable.

"The ovation I got was the biggest ovation I think I ever got here," she said. "My knees were knocking."

I'm not the new Hingis, says Henin-Hardenne

Justine Henin-Hardenne scotched all talk of her being the new Martina Hingis after reaching the last 16 at the French Open.

The slightly-built Belgian said even if she is no Serena Williams in the power stakes she won't go the way of Hingis, forced to retire prematurely through injury and increasingly seen as too lightweight to compete in the brutal modern game.

"I haven't heard that," said the Belgian blonde when asked if she was the new Hingis, who won five Grand Slams before retiring last year after ankle ligament trouble.

"I've a long way to go before I can be compared with her. We have a very different game. We have many points in common but a very different game. Anyway, Hingis has things behind her. I have many ahead of me!"

The determined stare betrayed a young woman with an unshakeable focus on her game.

Henin-Hardenne says she's no lightweight even if Serena has the extra bulk. "I've increased my muscle mass but not increased my weight dramatically. I am more powerful and I have more stamina on court. I know if I want to play long rallies against the top players I need that muscle. Now the results are coming."