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He'll always have Paris
Michael Chang reflects on crowning moment
Posted: Saturday May 22, 1999 04:15 PM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
ATLANTA -- It was just a flick of the wrist, really. An act of desperation.
To some, it was utter impudence.
Now, 10 years and a whole lot of tennis later, that simple shot, during the final agonizing minutes of a stunning fourth-round match in the 1989 French Open, lives as one of the most amazing single shots in tennis history.
It may seem hard to fathom, but it has been a full decade now since Michael Chang, then a 130-pound 17-year-old upstart, put together a run of guile and guts on the tricky clay courts of Roland Garros to become the first American man in 34 years to win the French Open.
Chang's victory over No. 1 Ivan Lendl in the '89 French Open Round of 16 was a five-set, four-hour, 37-minute labor filled with pain and suspense. His win over Stefan Edberg in the final, in another grueling five-setter, made him the youngest French Open champ and the youngest winner ever of a Grand Slam event.
It remains the only Slam that Michael Chang has won.
Chang, now 27, goes into this year's Open, which starts this week, in one of the worst slides of his lengthy career. He's plummeted in the rankings, to the point where he's now No. 50. He's 9-11 this season without a title.
He has won at least one tournament every year since 1988 -- the longest streak on the ATP Tour -- but, coming off a nagging wrist injury and a knee injury that affected him for much of last year, that record seems in real jeopardy.
Still, Chang looks to this year's French -- and back at his life-changing '89 triumph -- with his usual megadose of positive thinking, shooting down any talk of his decline, instead focusing on getting back to the top echelon of tennis.
"At this point, I'm able to brush things off pretty well," he said last month after his loss to unheralded Stefan Koubek at the clay-court AT&T Challenge in Atlanta. "I think I'm becoming more of a resilient person.
"I think of all of the challenges I've had in tennis, this is the biggest I've had."
Chang was a bonafide phenom in the spring of 1989, already with a win on Tour and some impressive victories over some big-named players. He was then what he is today: Doggedly determined, with a will to knock everything back across the net, the speed to get to balls few others can and the reflexes to take a bad bounce and make a winner of it.
He also was then, as he still is today, clever in a sport that often rewards sheer power -- the latter something he has always lacked.
In '89, he was still a bit of a curiosity, a hard working Chinese-American, the son of a pair of research chemists. He ate his mom's home-cooked noodles, talked openly about his faith and spent much of his time with his brother Carl.
Nothing, though, prepared the tennis world for what was to happen on the big-bouncing, slow clay of Roland Garros that spring.
Chang moved through the first matches in Paris without much fanfare, until he reached the Round of 16 against Lendl. Chang quickly dropped the first two sets to Lendl, but recovered and was hacking away in the fourth set when he began to cramp. To offset his physical problems, and maybe to give Lendl some, he began slowing down the pace, hitting moon balls deep into Lendl's side of the court, moving the Czech back and forth.
Chang took several breaks to swig down water, ate bananas during changeovers -- and incredibly forced the stoic Lendl into a fifth set.
He broke Lendl three times in the deciding set, and led 4-3. Chang was serving, down 15-30, when he went to the shot that would make Roland Garros gasp and eventually earn him the title.
Still cramping, still barely able to stand, the shot was a simple underhanded serve, a quick flick that took Lendl completely off-guard. Lendl lost the point, then started screaming at the umpire and the French crowd. He found himself down 15-40 in the next game, with a second serve, when Chang stepped inside the baseline, up nearly to the service box, to take the serve.
Lendl was clearly steaming. His serve bounced off the tape, went long and Chang sunk to his knees with the win.
"I was trying to break his concentration," he told Sports Illustrated after the 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 drainer. "I would do anything to stay out there."
Many saw the underhanded serve and the bold move to take Lendl's serve so close as sheer underhanded sportsmanship. It's a common move nowadays, stepping inside the baseline to try to take serves on the rise. But few ever have stepped that close.
And underhand serves are still a novelty, a trick shot. No one has ever used one in a more important point in a bigger match.
The win over Lendl was instantly a classic, but Chang followed it with the five-setter against the Swede Edberg, winning 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, again stepping well inside the baseline to take Edberg's serves.
"He is so young, maybe a little bit lucky," Edberg told Sports Illustrated at the time. "Maybe he doesn't think too much."
Chang's win, being the first for an American man since Tony Trabert in 1955, helped him rise to the Top 10, and he finished that year ranked No. 5, the youngest ever to be ranked that high. He was runner-up to Thomas Muster in Paris in '95, and reached the finals of both the Australian and the U.S. Open the next year.
But that's as close as he's come to winning another Slam, though he's had a hugely successful career by anyone's standards.
He's won 33 titles in his 11 years as a pro, racking up more than $17 million in prize money. In 1996, he was a match or two away from becoming the No. 1 player in the world, but he finished the year ranked No. 2, the highest he's ever been.
Now, healthy again, he envisions a climb back to tennis' elite, ignoring those who say today's game, filled with powerful servers and big-hitting baseliners, has passed him by, that the game no longer can be ruled by a player who simply outlasts or outsmarts opponents.
"When my time comes, I'll know it," he said. "I've never been that affected by people saying those things. If I were to listen to everybody, basically, I wouldn't be playing professional tennis."
Whatever happens in the future for Chang, of course, he still has Paris. He'll always have Paris.
"It's gone by so fast," Chang said of the decade since his win at the French. "That was an exciting time in my life. But I still think I have a lot of tennis in me."
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