When Michael Chang, nothing more than a tender Chinese-American boy playing far away from his Southern California home and subsisting on his mom's noodles cooked in their hotel room, won another extraordinary tennis match on Sunday, he did far more than prevail through a grueling 21 hours and 261 games to become the first American man to win the French Open since Tony Trabert did so 34 years ago. By coming from behind in the final to defeat Stefan Edberg of Sweden, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and by absolutely bamboozling Ivan Lendl, the world's No. 1 player, a few rounds earlier, Chang gave a much needed lift to U.S. tennis and hope to a sport that has nearly been put to sleep by the humdrum excellence of its leaders.
But Chang, just 17, wasn't the tournament's only new breeze. As an hors d'oeuvre of improbability that helped create the most astonishing combined result in a Grand Slam event in the modern era, maybe any era, another 17-year-old, Arantxa Sanchez of Spain, stepped into the zone and actually beat the seemingly unbeatable Steffi Graf in an enthralling three-hour performance on Saturday. That came two days after a precocious 15-year-old named Monica Seles softened up Graf, who had won five straight Grand Slam titles, in the semifinals.
Chang was an inspiration for Sanchez even before he was a champion. "I see Michael beat Lendl and ask, Why not I am beating Number One?" said Sanchez in her delightfully fractured English. She supplied her response with a 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 victory.
Chang's arsenal is based on anticipation, reflexes, speed—nobody has been quicker to the ball since Bjorn Borg—and defensive instincts that make an opponent feel as if he is slugging away at Chang's garage door in Placentia, Calif. "He is so young, maybe a little bit lucky," said Edberg after losing 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. "Maybe he doesn't think too much."
You couldn't be more mistaken, Stefan. Chang was always thinking, always outthinking. He mystified his elders with his head—"the head of a champion," said Jose Higueras, who coaches him on clay—and of them all, Edberg was the most mystified.
After Edberg had worked his way back into the championship match and taken control with some characteristic serve-and-volley aggression, he broke Chang's serve to start the fourth set. But the 5'8", 135-pound Chang, who came into the tournament ranked 19th in the world, was steadfast in his resolve. He stayed two yards inside the baseline to return Edberg's huge deliveries on the rise. He kept testing Edberg's fragile forehand. He picked his spots and matched volleys with the best volleyer in the game. Shockingly, he broke right back for 1-1. Chang then began fighting off break points: four in Game 3, five in Game 7, another in Game 9. With Edberg serving at 4-5, 30-all, Chang smashed a couple of forehand returns off first serves, and suddenly the match was all even.
Or was it? In the fifth set Chang matched Edberg's opening break by breaking right back in an 18-point game. Chang broke again to go ahead 3-1. By now Edberg, who had beaten Boris Becker in a five-set semifinal, looked exhausted, almost groggy.
In the next game Edberg had double break point, but he erred on both, and Chang held after four deuces to lead 4-1. A glassy-eyed Edberg was slumping at the baseline. The umpire had to tell him it was time for the changeover. Edberg had to know it was just over, period.
"I can't really explain what happened to turn it around," said Chang, who had prepared some notes for an acceptance speech in which he remembered to mention nearly everybody in the sport except Edberg. Well, at the least, an American had finally won in Paris.
As much as Chang did for the men's game in Paris, Graf benefited women's tennis more by what she did not do—namely, win. With all the cherubs frolicking across the dirt paths of Roland Garros—the average age of the women's semifinalists was 17—it was easy to forget that Graf was celebrating the final week of her own teen years. But for the first time she seemed to be bowing to the combined pressures of fading adolescence and her multinational celebrityhood. She had to recognize that the biorhythms of love, health and nature were obviously conspiring against her.