Commentary

Chang's win changed U.S. chemistry

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

Jim Courier was playing Andrei Chesnokov on Roland Garros' intimate Court No. 1, when the sonic wave emanating from Court Philippe Chatrier, about 100 yards away, startled the 18-year-old Floridian.

It was June 5, 1989, and Michael Chang, a 17-year-old American, was in the process of taking down world No. 1 Ivan Lendl.

"I can still hear the roars of the crowd cascading in waves from Court Central over the walls of the Bull Ring as I played Chesnokov," Courier wrote in an e-mail to ESPN.com. "There were murmurs of 'Chang a gagne' -- Chang won! -- that went through the crowd like a brushfire once the score came up on our scoreboard on a change of ends.

"Those are magical moments when matches take over the rest of the grounds with their energy."

It was even larger than that, really. That moment changed the chemistry of men's tennis.

Courier, who had advanced to the fourth round by beating another Andre, a 19-year-old fellow American named Agassi, lost to Chesnokov in five sets but, thanks to Chang, he would leave the French Open with a new conviction about his place in the game of tennis.

For Chang, who bested Stefan Edberg in the final, won the title that year at Roland Garros. After Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe won a collective 15 Grand Slam singles titles between 1974 and 1984, it had been a five-year drought for American men.

"Everyone was saying, 'Where are the American tennis players?'" recalled tennis analyst Bud Collins.

Lendl, Edberg, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker had been dominating the Grand Slam events, but now, here was an American answer -- perhaps the least likely of a handful of potential champions.

"Michael's win really came out of nowhere," wrote Courier, who is a co-founding partner of the Outback Champions Series, the senior tennis circuit. "Andre was the only player of our group who had results that would have led you to believe he was ready to win a Slam at that time."

Tony Trabert, the 1954 and 1955 champion at Roland Garros, had been waiting for an American win in Paris for decades.

[+] EnlargeJim Courier
AP Photo/Remy de la MauviniereJim Courier won consecutive Australian and French Open titles in the early 1990s.

"I don't understand why in that era more Americans didn't win," he said. "I grew up in Cincinnati playing some matches on clay, but most of our players are geared to serve and volley on fast surfaces. Once they get on that clay, they're not used to the higher bounce. With longer points, longer games and longer matches you need patience.

"Michael showed that with patience and mental toughness you could get close to players who were supposed to beat you, and even beat them."

Paul Annacone, who would go on to coach Sampras for eight years, was already at Queen's Club in London preparing for the next tournament -- where he would beat Sampras to advance to the quarterfinals.

"It showed all those guys that they were right there, ready to contend at that level," said Annacone, coach of men's tennis for Great Britain's Lawn Tennis Association. "It's one thing from a development point of view, to say you can do it. It's another thing when there's actual tangible evidence.

"A light bulb goes off in the competitor's head. Those guys -- Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Martin -- were close in terms of age and talent. It was a big piece of evidence."

Martin watched the final on television in his Delta Tau Delta fraternity house at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Martin, who had played No. 2 singles as a freshman, had a tough time grasping Chang's accomplishment.

"He had always been much better than me," Martin said from his Florida home. "Watching Michael at the French, for me personally, it was awe-inspiring. In another way, I was deflated because the gap that I was aware of between his ability and my ability a year before looked to be significant. I thought I hadn't been that far away.

"Andre, Pete and Jim, his real bona fide peers, I would think, would be foaming at the mouth. All those guys were immensely confident in themselves. There's no way they didn't say, 'This is definitely going to happen for me.'"

Exactly.

"Michael winning the tournament opened up my eyes, and probably Pete's, too, as to what was immediately possible," Courier wrote. "Simply put, I knew if Michael could do it, I could."

In the years that followed, the finest generation of American men easily outdistanced the Grand Slam totals of Connors and McEnroe, winning a total of 27 major titles -- Sampras (14), Agassi (8), Courier (4) and Chang (1). Martin would play his way into two Grand Slam finals and MaliVai Washington would reach one.

For Lendl, the loss to Chang was a forgettable match, although it probably cost him a fourth French Open title and a ninth Grand Slam singles title.

Reached recently, Lendl seemed surprised when told how the then-young Americans viewed Chang's victory as a breakthrough.

"That's interesting," Lendl said. "I never thought about that. I guess that's a point from them, well taken. Maybe it did influence them.

"Now that I think about it, I accept that point."

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.