Commentary

Chang refused to lose 20 years ago

Originally Published: May 19, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

He was a 16-year-old kid just starting out in professional tennis when the call came. Boris Becker had pulled out of a 1988 exhibition in Des Moines, Iowa, and organizers were looking for an opponent for Ivan Lendl, the world No. 1.

Michael Chang said yes -- and got smoked, 2-6, 3-6.

Afterward, Chang and his mother, Betty, and Lendl and his wife, Samantha, rode back to the hotel in a limousine.

"Do you want to know why I beat you today?" Lendl asked him.

"OK," Chang said, "tell me why you kicked my butt so bad."

"Truthfully," said Lendl, who had already won six Grand Slam titles, "you've got nothing that can hurt me. You've got no serve; your second serve is not very strong.

"So, pretty much, whenever I play you, I can do whatever I want, however I want, and I'm going to beat you pretty comfortably like I did today."

Chang listened intently.

"I absorbed everything he said like a sponge," Chang said. "I got to work on my serve, on hitting the ball harder, moving the ball better -- all these aspects of my game. If the No. 1 player in the world is telling me that I need to work on something, you can be for sure that's the truth."

And that is precisely what Chang did.

A year later, he would stun Lendl in the fourth round at the French Open, one of the most dramatic, astonishing matches in Grand Slam archives. Three matches later, Chang, 17 years, 3 months old, vanquished Stefan Edberg in the final to become the youngest male Grand Slam title holder ever.

That was 20 years ago.

"Oh, man. It doesn't seem like 20 years," said Jose Higueras, Chang's coach at Roland Garros. "The older I get, the faster time goes, and there's nothing in between.

"It was a special occasion, one of my fondest memories."

The same goes for Chang, who is semi-retired at the age of 37. The dark, boyish bangs have receded a bit, but he still bristles with the energy that made him one of the game's fastest and most exciting players.

"It's a match that has defined a lot in my career," Chang told ESPN producer Kris Schwartz last month in Los Angeles. "But it is a match that impacted my life in a much greater way than just tennis."

The victory was a warning shot to the world that the young Americans were coming. Soon, very soon, Sampras, Agassi and Courier would follow Chang as major champions.

Why not?

He was a 5-foot-8, 134-pound blur of precocity.

A Chinese-American born in Hoboken, N.J., Chang became the youngest man -- at 15 years, 6 months -- to win a main-draw match at the U.S. Open. A year later, in 1988, he reached the fourth round in New York, losing to eventual semifinalist Andre Agassi. Later that month, he won his first ATP title in San Francisco.

A few weeks later, the United States Tennis Association hooked up Chang with Higueras.

"He had a good attitude for clay-court tennis," Higueras said recently from his California home. "I'll tell you a funny story: I told him in the spring of '89, 'Michael, if you work really hard, you have a chance to do well at the French Open next year.'

"He looked at me and said, 'Why not this year?'"

Lendl So, pretty much, whenever I play you, I can do whatever I want, however I want, and I'm going to beat you pretty comfortably like I did today.

-- Ivan Lendl to Michael Chang, in 1988

The soft, supple red clay at Roland Garros complemented Chang's greatest physical asset, his speed. He lost the first set of his opening match to Belgian Eduardo Masso but rallied to win in four sets. Pete Sampras was six months older and was already displaying the tools that would win him a record 14 Grand Slam titles, but Chang unstrung him in the second round, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. Spain's Francisco Roig fell in straight sets and there was Lendl, a five-time finalist and three-time champion at Roland Garros, waiting for him in the round of 16.

Bud Collins, multitasking far ahead of his time, was writing for the Boston Globe and broadcasting for NBC.

"Ivan should have won the tournament; Chang wasn't in his league," Collins said from his home in Massachusetts. "He's looking at this little guy across the net, thinking, 'I won the first two sets, what are you doing here? Go home.'"

Lendl broke Chang once in each of the first two sets, but the young American was able to "sneak out" the third set, and then the fourth. That was when Chang's legs began to fail him.

"Toward the end of the fourth set, I started to cramp anytime I had to run really hard," Chang said. "So I resorted to hitting a lot of moon balls, and trying to keep points as short as possible. If I had an opportunity to go for a winner, I'd go for it."

With his opponent clearly in physical distress, Lendl did nothing to alter his tactics; he attempted only a single drop shot in the fifth set.

Leading 2-1, Chang actually approached chair umpire Richard Ings.

"I was really close to quitting," he said. "I started to say to myself, 'Who am I kidding here? I'm 17 years old and I'm playing against the No. 1 player in the world. It wouldn't be so bad to just call it a day.'

"When I got to the service line, I got an unbelievable conviction of heart. Looking back, I really feel like it was the Lord kind of telling me, 'Michael, what do you think you're doing here?' If I quit once, the second, third, fourth or fifth time that I am faced with that kind of circumstance, that kind of difficulty, I'm going to quit again."

Chang turned around and walked back to the baseline. Focusing on one point at a time, he managed the pain. Chang hit two backhand volley winners and broke Lendl to take a 3-2 lead. Serving at 4-3, but down 15-30, Chang authored one of the game's most famous strokes.

"Every time when I went up for my serve, my legs would cramp," Chang explained. "My first serve is going maybe 60 miles an hour -- that was it. The thought crossed my mind, 'let's do a little underhand slice serve.' This is actually a serve that Andre Agassi used in 12-and-under [tournaments] very, very effectively."

You can watch it a dozen times on YouTube and never fail to be amazed: Chang leaned forward and stealthily flicked that little underhand slice serve across the net. Surprised, Lendl hit an awkward forehand return and Chang leaned into a forehand passing shot that clipped the top of the net and the top of Lendl's racket.

Chang exulted, pumping his arms. The crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier roared in disbelief.

"From there," Chang said, "the whole tide of the match really, really turned."

Todd Martin, part of that greatest generation of American men, had just finished his freshman year at Northwestern.

"That was David versus Goliath in the larger picture and the smaller picture of the underhand serve," Martin said. "That's the last stone that felled Goliath."

It was 15-40 with Lendl serving to stay in the match. After he missed a first serve, Chang crept to within a few feet of the service line. Lendl, agitated, asked for quiet and then sent his second serve off the top of the net -- long.

Somehow, Chang prevailed 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. And when it was over, after 4 hours, 39 minutes, he fell on his back and cried.

"In my mind, that match was not that important," Lendl told ESPN.com from his home in Florida. "Personally, I didn't think I should be a big piece of that."

But wasn't it, in terms of history, a remarkable match?

"Ummm, I don't know," Lendl said. "The tennis was not that good. Not so good."

A higher purpose?

[+] EnlargeIvan Lendl
AP Photo/Lionel CironneauIvan Lendl was the No. 1 player in the world and the prohibitive favorite versus Michael Chang.

Tony Trabert won five majors during his long, fruitful career, two of them at Roland Garros, in 1954 and 1955.

Thirty-four years later, he watched from his seat behind the potted red geraniums, hoping to see the first American man win the French Open since he had.

"Lendl choked, which surprised me," Trabert said from his home in Florida. "If he had played better, he would have won. Michael, to his credit, worked him around pretty good."

Chang worked around Ronald Agenor of the United States in the quarterfinals and Russian Andrei Chesnokov in the semifinals in unremarkable four-set matches. No. 3-ranked Stefan Edberg of Sweden, meanwhile, raced through the field on the other side of the draw and reached the final with a five-set semifinal victory over No. 2 Boris Becker.

While Chang was buoyed by his victory over Lendl, he had another inspiration. Two days earlier, the Chinese army had sent its tanks rolling into Beijing's Tiananmen Square. At the Paris hotel where the family was staying, Chang and his parents watched the disturbing events unfold on CNN.

"What it was really about," Chang explained, "was an opportunity to bring a smile upon Chinese people's faces around the world when there wasn't a whole lot to smile about. I honestly feel that that was God's purpose for allowing me to be able to get through those matches."

The tenacity he had shown against Lendl surfaced in the final against Edberg. Trailing two sets to one, Chang found himself down 15-40 in the third game of the fourth set. He saved four break points to hold serve, then saved five break points in the seventh game.

In the end, after 3 hours, 41 minutes, Chang was a 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 winner.

"I look back upon that particular instance whenever I'm faced with trials and circumstances that are difficult to go through," Chang said. "And I always tell myself, 'Hey, there's hope. There's hope of being able to get through.'

"Looking back, it was really a fairy tale story. There are matches that I should not have won, but was able to come through."

Chang never won another major title, but more than seven years later, he became the world's No. 2-ranked player. Ultimately, he won 34 professional tournaments (more than Courier) and $19 million in prize money. Today, Chang plays the Outback Champions Series and runs the Chang Family Foundation. He is married to professional player Amber Liu.

A few weeks after the French Open, Lendl spotted Chang at Wimbledon.

"The first thing he did," Chang said, "was walk straight up to me, put his hand out and shook my hand and said, 'Michael, great French Open. Well done.' I can't say that's really what every person would do."

Said Lendl, "I think the world of Michael. He was a great competitor. After he beat me I was very pleased for him. Of course, I was not rooting for him when we were playing."

"There are moments in sports, special moments when a bunch of small things come together and it becomes a big thing," Higueras said. "You have the young kid cramping against the No. 1 player in the world, the big stadium going crazy -- it all came together and it made a great story."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.