As Michael Chang's farewell season arrives in Paris, the scene of his prodigious triumph at the 1989 French Open, an abiding memory is of a colleague, Alan Page, and his quest to catch the bird of sensation in flight through the words of Chang's mother.
Betty Chang looked on from the President's Box at Roland Garros as her diminutive son, aged 17 and three months, fought back from two sets to love down in the fourth round against Ivan Lendl, the ultimate professional of his era, a competitor whose opponents were in awe of his fitness regimen.
Having levelled the match to two sets all, Chang looked ready for the knacker's yard. Cramping so badly that he was barely able to walk, he staggered to the baseline and relied on mental strength to keep him in the match. His tactics included hitting lots of moonballs (surprisingly, Lendl returned them in kind, as if showing that two could play that game), standing on the service line to receive serve (Lendl, nonplussed, foot-faulted and double-faulted), and serving underarm at one point - a point he won, largely because the frustrated Lendl belted his return over the baseline. Spectators laughed. "Shut up!" shouted Lendl.
While this was going on, Page, sensing a colossal upset, edged toward the President's Box to interview Mrs Chang as soon as the match was over. Breathlessly, Page recounted what had just taken place, and, cassette recorder primed, said: "Mrs Chang, you must be so proud of Michael." She regarded Page calmly and said, "God did it," and was gone before the reporter could continue the discussion by suggesting that God, surely, helped those who helped themselves.
Chang went on to defeat Stefan Edberg in the final after the Swede had taken a two sets to one lead and been a break up in the fourth set. Having become the youngest ever Grand Slam men's singles champion (Becker was four months older when winning Wimbledon in 1985) and the first American to win the French Open since Tony Trabert in 1955, Chang said: "God bless everybody, especially the people of China."
It was to be Chang's only Grand Slam title, although he was runner-up at the French in 1995 and at the Australian Open and the United States Open in 1996, the year in which he rose to No 2 in the world.
At one stage his racket manufacturer, Prince, launched an advertising campaign featuring two rackets: "God's racket," with a head not much bigger than Sherlock Holmes' magnifying glass, and "Michael Chang's racket," an oversized model. At Roland Garros in 1989 Lendl must have felt as if he had God's racket but not God's hand.
Asked what had happened to Lendl that day in Paris, Edberg's coach, Tony Pickard, said: "Somebody pulled the plug out of the computer."
Chang, 31, smiled when reminded of his unlikely conquest. "I don't think it was a very easy match for Ivan to play, in all honesty," he said, speaking about the contest as if it had taken place yesterday. "Ivan is a great champion, very prepared, very professional. It's just one of those matches you can't train for. I don't think you can train somebody how to figure out how to play somebody when he's hurting or when he's cramping. That was something that was new for Ivan."
True. Opponents tended not to serve under-arm to Lendl, not did they stand on the service line when receiving serve. "Serving underhand, it was just a spur of the moment thing," Chang recalled. "I think sometimes when you're 17 years old, you don't quite know what you're doing. I don't think it would be received in the same way if I were to do it now if I was cramping. There's a certain naïveté, a certain innocence, about doing it when you're 17 years old. For the most part, I think that's why I didn't get ridiculed that much for doing it."
How did Lendl take it? "I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ivan," Chang said. "When I saw him in London [after the French Open], never did he give me give me a dirty look or anything like that. He came up to me and said: 'Congratulations, it was a great effort in Paris.' To me, that showed a lot of class.
"I think Ivan is known a little bit as a kind of computer, very stringent in the way he does things. But there's a certain side to him also that people don't see, something that I've appreciated, because he's always been very kind to me and my mom throughout the times that I've played him in my career."
Chang has watched a tape of the Lendl match many times. "I still can't tell you how I won it," he said. "It's an odd feeling. I've always said the Lord works in His miraculous ways. The last four matches [of that tournament] were played on inspiration. I always tell people that I felt in my heart that the Lord wanted me to win because of the situation in Tianenman Square, a very down time for Chinese people. It was an opportunity for Chinese people to take a moment to smile about something that was happening to a fellow Chinese person half way around the world. I feel like in certain aspects, that was God's purpose."
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and raised in California, Chang's adaptation of muscular Christianity has been a feature of his career. Back in '89, after overcoming Edberg in the final, and inferring on the day that God had favoured him more than the impeccable Swede, Chang told reporters: "I know every time I bring this up I see the pens go or heads drop. People in a way are getting sick of it. But if I really want to tell you the truth, it is Jesus Christ. I give him credit for all the things that happen in my life."
Chang's success was a blessing for American tennis, encouraging Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi to follow his lead in winning the world's major championships. Agassi, the last of the quartet off the mark, at Wimbledon in 1992, went on to complete a collection of the four Grand Slam singles titles and continues, at 33, to be a dominant figure in the sport.
"In all of sports," Agassi says, "Michael's as great a competitor as you'll ever see. He's never once not shown up with everything he's had. He learned how to maximise everything in his game, based on his heart and his mind and his speed. We are considerably separate in how we approach the game. Michael's always relied on hustling and making a guy feel the need to panic and to press. So he's always taken the brunt of somebody's game.
"He's put a lot more miles on the court, I think, than I have as far as wear and tear on the legs. We're both baseliners, but I try to control the points. I think Michael looks to counterpunch and hit one good shot. I think there's a lot to be said for making certain matches easier on yourself over the course of time."
Chang is keen to make his final appearance at Roland Garros more than just a sentimental journey, but the odds are that the cheers will amount to little more than a thanks for the memory of 1989. Otherwise, hold Alan Page.Reuse content