Throwback Thursday

"God Pulled Me Through" – How 17-Year-Old Michael Chang Won the French Open

Despite playing with a heavy heart over the Tiananmen Square Massacre, 17-year-old Michael Change stunned the tennis world by winning the 1989 French Open.

by Tim Casey
03 June 2016, 9:58am

@livetennis on Twitter

Michael Chang arrived in Paris in mid-May for a three-week work trip at a tournament where he first made a name for himself 27 years ago. He trained and coached Kei Nishikori, a 26-year-old from Japan who lost in the fourth round of the French Open. He then teamed with Alex Corretja in a doubles event for former players.

Chang's life has changed dramatically since he came to Roland Garros in 1989 as an inexperienced 17-year-old kid, and left as the youngest man to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. He is now 44, married with three young children. He has reinvented himself as a teacher and ambassador for Asian men's tennis.

Still, when most people think of Chang, they remember him as a short, tenacious overachiever who captured the attention of sports fans during a time when China, his father's homeland, was in the midst of one of its most challenging ordeals.

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Although Chang entered the 1989 French Open as the No. 15 seed, no one expected much from him. Yes, he had become the youngest player to win a match in the U.S. Open two years earlier when he upset Paul McNamee. And yes, he had turned pro the previous year and was considered to have a bright future despite his 5-foot-9, 150-pound frame. But Chang had only played on clay courts for two years. He had also lost in the third round of the previous year's tournament to John McEnroe, an idol of his as a boy growing up in Southern California.

The day before his 6-0, 6-3, 6-1 win over Chang in 1988, McEnroe was his usual blunt self when talking to reporters.

"He was saying, 'I'm gonna show this 16 year-old-kid how to play tennis,'" Chang told VICE Sports. "When you're watching someone play for the Wimbledon title and the U.S. Open title, all of a sudden you're like, 'Wow, this guy's on the other side of the court playing against me in a Slam.' It was a little bit intimidating. I got pummeled."

That experience, though, helped Chang a year later. He had little trouble against his first three opponents, including a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 second round victory over Pete Sampras, a rival of Chang's since they were in elementary school.

In the fourth round, Chang faced No. 1 seed Ivan Lendl, a three-time Roland Garros champion who hadn't lost a set in the tournament. Chang had beaten Lendl that April on clay during an exhibition in Atlanta, but he entered as a big underdog. Lendl, 29, was at the top of his game and coming off a victory in the Australian Open, his seventh career Grand Slam singles title.

Chang was also concerned with the political unrest in China, where his father was born and raised. His mother was of Chinese descent but was born in India. On June 4, 1989, a day before Chang faced Lendl, a large number unarmed Chinese civilians were killed in Beijing during what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

"If I was not out playing my match or practicing, I was glued to the television set watching the events unfold over there," Chang said. "It was a very down time for Chinese people around the world to see so many lives lost in the crackdown."

Chang said he didn't feel much pressure and wasn't nervous against Lendl. By then, he had traveled the world and played most of the top-ranked men. Although Lendl won the first two sets 6-4, 6-4, Chang said he was playing pretty well. He took the next two sets 6-3, 6-3, to force a decisive fifth.

But by then, Chang was reeling. His legs had begun cramping near the end of the fourth set, and he was exhausted from running around the court chasing Lendl's shots. When Chang led 2-1 in the fifth set, he took several swigs from his water bottle, ate a banana and contemplated quitting during the changeover.

"I started to kind of think, 'Who am I kidding here? I'm not gonna win this match. I'm cramping,'" he said. "I felt like, 'Hey, it's not a bad day. I'm 17 years old. How many players can say I took the number one player in the world to five tough sets in a Slam?' I'd get maybe a good write-up in the paper and a pat on the back from a lot of other players. That's not a bad day."

As Chang walked toward the chair umpire to tell him he would retire, he suddenly changed his mind.

"When I got to the service line, I had an unbelievable conviction from God," he said. "It dawned on me if I were to quit now, every other time that I'm approached with this situation or something similar to it, the second, third or fourth time would be that much easier to quit. Did I really want to be known for being a quitter under these kinds of circumstances? That's something that I definitely knew that I did not want to be."

Late in the match, the usually consistent and cautious Chang changed his tactics. He alternated between lobbing the ball to irritate Lendl and becoming more aggressive, trying to hit winners when possible to make the points shorter. Meanwhile, Chang sensed Lendl could tell he was tired, so he tried to keep the ball in play and make Chang run and wear himself out.

With his legs continuing to cramp, Chang had trouble generating much power on his serves. He said his first serves were barely reaching 70 miles an hour, which is very slow even for a second serve. So, with Chang leading 4-3 but trailing 15-30, he hit an underhand slice serve that landed in the middle of the service box and skidded away from the court. Lendl crushed a forehand and ran towards the net. Chang countered with a forehand down the line that clipped the top of net. The ball went off Lendl's racket strings and off the court, evening the score at 30-all and causing the normally reserved Chang to pump his arms twice.

"The crowd just went absolutely nuts after that point," Chang said. "From there, it became a mental battle as well as a physical one."

Chang held his serve to go ahead 5-3 and then led 40-15 in the next game. After Lendl missed his first serve, Chang approached the service line, putting pressure on Lendl.

"I had done that before in juniors, going up really close to return serve," Chang said. "I was just gonna rip it. I was just gonna go for a winner. If it went in, great. If it didn't go in, I still had one more. I felt like, 'Hey, I might as well take a crack it.'"

Chang never had to hit another shot as Lendl's second serve landed deep for a double fault, giving Chang the victory in a match that lasted four hours and 38 minutes. The victory was the biggest of Chang's young career and put him in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. He followed up with four set victories over Ronald Agenor and Andrei Chesnokov to advance to the finals, where he faced No. 3 seed Stefan Edberg.

Edberg was the defending Wimbledon champion and arguably the best serve-and-volley player in the world, a magician at the net. Still, Chang was confident because he had defeated Edberg 6-3, 6-2 in March in a tournament in Indian Wells, California.

After Chang won the first set 6-1, Edberg won the next two 6-3, 6-4 before Chang rallied to win the fourth 6-4. Chang clinched the title with a 6-2 fifth set victory, making him the first American man to win the French Open since Tony Trabert in 1955. It was only the second singles title of Chang's career.

At 17 years and 95 days old, he was the youngest male Grand Slam singles champion, a record that still stands, and one that doesn't seem likely to be broken anytime soon. Since then, Rafael Nadal has been the next youngest winner, having captured the 2005 French Open at 19 years and 2 days old.

"I honestly feel and believe in my heart that part of the reason why I won was because God allowed me to win to put a smile upon Chinese people's faces during a time when there wasn't a whole lot to smile about," Chang said. "Some of those matches are definitely matches that I really had no business winning, but for one reason or another, God pulled me through those matches. In many ways, it was a fairy tale story."

Chang never again won a Grand Slam singles title, although he did reach No. 2 in the world in 1996 and made the finals of the 1995 French Open, the 1996 Australian Open and the 1996 U.S. Open. He was inducted into the tennis Hall of Fame in 2008, the same year he married Amber Liu, a former top ranked junior player in the U.S. who won the NCAA singles championship at Stanford University in 2003 and 2004.

Chang briefly coached his wife until she decided to quit playing professionally. Today, the couple lives in Orange County, California with their five-year-old daughter, three-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son. The oldest plays some tennis, but Chang said he doesn't want to force the sport on any of his children.

That said, Chang remains in the game. He travels and trains 25 weeks per year with Nishikori, the No. 6-ranked player in the world. He also competes in legends tournaments against some of his former rivals.

"I'm certainly not training the way I used to train when I was out on tour," Chang said. "The body can't obviously handle it post-40 [years old]. I don't think any of us who retire want to train like we used to train anymore. But it's still nice to get out there and hit the ball. Tennis will always be an important part of my life."

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