NEW YORK -- No. 13 seed Patrick Rafter watched Michael Chang's amazing forehand passing shot scoot off the court like a comet, saw Chang go into a frenzy -- jumping up and down, shaking his racket, his fist, his entire being.
Rafter watched and mentally cringed. It was, after all, the start of the third set of their U.S. Open men's semifinal and Chang, the No. 2 seed who is known for five-set comebacks, was getting pumped.
"I thought the whole thing was going to turn around right there," Rafter said, running his hand through his wet, dark hair. "I know what a competitor Michael is."
But people at the Open are learning what a competitor Rafter is, too. The Australian knocked off a revitalized Andre Agassi in the fourth round and, yesterday afternoon, defeated Chang and all his dreams, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
It was Chang, ranked No. 2 and the highest seed left in the tournament, who was being touted as the favorite. And it was Chang who could see he had the best chance he has ever had of winning the Open.
Instead, it will be Rafter, the first Australian to make it to the Open final since Ken Rosewall lost to Jimmy Connors in 1974, against Greg Rusedski, a 6-1, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 victor over Jonas Bjorkman and the first Briton in the final since Fred Perry won the Open in 1936.
On a day when Great Britain and the world was focused on the funeral of Princess Diana, two representatives of Commonwealth countries, Rafter and Rusedski, have combined to turn the Open on its ear.
Or maybe that's a misconception. When the two of them meet today, they will bring to seven the number of different finalists in this year's four Grand Slams. Only No. 1 Pete Sampras, who lost in the fourth round here, made it to two finals and won both. A young player named Gustavo Kuerten came out of nowhere to win the French Open. And now the Open will have a new champion.
"I think it's very fair to say there are a pack of players right behind us [Sampras and Chang] who have the capability of knocking off top players," said Chang, whose only Grand Slam victory came in the 1989 French.
"I think it's great for tennis, though I thought it would be refreshing if I won -- you know: 'Chang finally breaks through after nine-year drought.' But even though I lost today, it's great to see fresh faces.
"In a sense, there is a bit of a changing of the guard the past couple years, with Boris [Becker] retiring and Michael Stich retiring, Stefan Edberg retiring. The game is changing right now."
Right now, before your eyes. But strangely, even though Edberg, the game's superlative serve-and-volley player is gone, this final will be between two men who love to serve and volley.
Yesterday, Rafter was awesome. He served big and volleyed bigger, as if there were magic in his racket. At times, Chang must have felt as though he were hitting against a wall, because no matter how great a shot he hit, the ball came right back at him, as Rafter kept up the pressure.
"I'm in the middle of a fairy tale," said Rafter, 25. "At the same time, nothing has sunk in yet and that's really important. I've got to try to keep my feet on the ground here at the moment."
Rusedski, who has been wearing a black ribbon on his shirt in memory of Diana, said he hoped his victory here gives people in England a little something to smile about.
"You can't compare the tragedy of the princess with anything going on at the U.S. Open," he said. "But the people there have embraced me from the start, from when I came over [from Canada] in 1995 and lost my first two matches. In the papers, I was called a 'true Brit' because I lost two in a row.
"Even today in the locker room before the match, on such a sad day, people called from Leeds and all over England to wish me well, which was very kind."
Rusedski, who turned 24 yesterday, was not feeling well before his match and there was talk he would default with a viral infection. But though he could hardly talk after his victory, he said there was no way he was not going to play.
"It's just an infection," he said. "It was the semifinals of the U.S. Open and if you can step on the court, you play, because you don't get these opportunities very often."
Rusedski played a tremendous first set and then Bjorkman lifted his own game and took the next two sets.
In the fifth set, Bjorkman had three break points on Rusedski's serve, but Rusedski held with two strong serves and a net-cord winner.
Both Rafter and Rusedski are happy to be where they are today. But neither seems to know what it will mean for the future.
"I'm just hoping. I'm looking forward to continuing," Rusedski said. "Now I can talk about winning the tournament. One more match to go."
As for Rafter, he thinks he's due. He's 0-for-5 in finals this year.
"I think if I keep getting to the last match, sooner or later I should win one," he said. "Someone should twist an ankle sometime. But if I win, I don't know, I guess I'm going to be the same as I right now."
Women's doubles championship: Lindsay Davenport and Jana Novotna (3), def. Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva (1), 6-3, 6-4.
Junior girls doubles championship: Marissa Irvin and Alexandra Stevenson (6) beat Cara Black and Irina Selyutina (1), 6-2, 7-6 (7-3).
Men's 35 doubles championship: Johan Kriek and John Lloyd beat Gene Mayer and Hank Pfister, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2.
Ladies senior doubles championship: Wendy Overton and Anne Smith beat Terry Holladay and Olga Morozova, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5).
Pub Date: 9/07/97