Michael Chang’s return to the site of his greatest triumph was unexpectedly brief, but even 25 years later, what he did during that fortnight at Roland Garros remains poignant and unforgettable.
In June 1989, just 17 years old at the time, Chang shocked the tennis world by taking down world No. 1 Ivan Lendl in a mesmerizing round-of-16 match. He then went on to become the youngest Grand Slam winner by defeating Stefan Edberg in the final.
All the more remarkable was that Chang accomplished his feat at a tumultuous time for his family and his people. The day before his match against Lendl on Court Central, he sat transfixed watching the events transpiring in Tiananmen Square. A bloody massacre had begun and it was beamed around the world on television.
“Once the crackdown actually happened,” Chang recounts now in an interview with the New York Times, “and you saw so many people dying and you see the guy standing in front of the tank and stuff like that, it does put things into proper perspective.”
The son of Chinese immigrants from Taiwan, Chang would go on to make both the Chinese and his native America proud in subsequent days. He became the first U.S. men’s singles winner in Roland Garros since Tony Trabert in 1955, breaking a long hex that had flummoxed even greats such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
He also became tennis’ first Grand Slam winner of Asian descent, winning him much acclaim and admiration both in America’s Chinese community and also across the Pacific in his ancestral land. Chang would win 34 tournaments in his career, appear in three other Grand Slam finals and rise to No. 2 in the world rankings in 1996. In 2008, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
After retirement, Chang settled into a stable family life, marrying former Stanford University tennis player Amber Liu and having two daughters. He played sporadically in senior and charity events, but made a more committed return to tennis in January when he signed on to be the coach of rising Japanese star Kei Nishikori.
His influence on Nishikori has been immediate and positive. Nishikori, 24, has had a great spring, winning the Barcelona Open for his first clay-court title and defeating Roger Federer in Key Biscayne in the quarterfinals. He had red dirt king and world No. 1 Rafael Nadal on the ropes in the final of the Madrid Open in early May, but a recurring hip injury forced him to retire in the third set.
With Chang in tow, Nishikori arrived in Paris for the French Open with high hopes and his highest ranking ever at No. 9. But with his hip still hampering him, he crashed out in the first round against Martin Klizan.
Still, Chang is bullish on Nishikori’s future prospects after he became the first Japanese man to crack the top 10 in the world rankings.
“It is all a matter of taking things step by step and he can’t get too far ahead of himself,” Chang told the media in Hong Kong last week before leaving for France. “He has been making good progress and has gained a lot of confidence and belief in his game and it’s starting to show.
“We have put in a lot of hard work to a lot of different aspects of his game and there are lots or areas he can improve upon, which is exciting. It’s been a good combination and the results are good signs that things are going well.”
Chang would like to see Nishikori become the first Asian-born male to win a Grand Slam title, and the key to making it happen is an unshakable self belief. That’s what Chang had in abundance even as a teenager, when he took on the world’s best and beat them all.
Particularly memorable in the now-legendary Lendl match was Chang’s determination and gamesmanship, which frustrated the usually unflappable eight-time Slam champion. Suffering from dehydration and cramps, Chang nevertheless outwitted Lendl by hitting an assortment of unorthodox shots that included underhanded serves and moonball lobs.
A devout Christian, Chang isn’t arrogant enough to think that he did it all himself. Even a quarter century later, he insists that there was higher power at work and that there was a greater meaning in his winning the 1989 French title.
“There were matches I just shouldn’t have won,” Chang said. “There were balls that should have gone out that didn’t. There was rain that had no business coming down. I mean, you can’t fathom how those things had happened.
“There was a purpose there, and there was a purpose for me being 17 and a purpose for me being Chinese and for the events that unfolded during that period of time. There was a reason it happened the way it did.”