Catching the Tape: Two Princes in Action

Wednesday, May 02, 2012 /by

There’s no shortage of turning points in tennis history; you can make virtually any match into one retrospectively. The two highlighted above, if not full-fledged pivotal moments, at least qualify as significant milestones in racquet history. The first was Chris Evert’s 7-5, 6-4 win in the 1978 U.S. Open final over Pam Shriver. While it was Chrissie’s fourth straight Open title, it’s the 16-year-old Shriver’s presence that’s of interest right now. As I wrote yesterday, Shriver was the first player to reach a Slam final using an oversize racquet, the aluminum Prince Pro.

While Shriver’s run heralded a new, bigger, more powerful future for the sport, it would take the future a little while to get here for Prince. The second clip above is from Michael Chang’s win over Stefan Edberg in the 1989 French Open final. This marked the first time that someone went Shriver one better and won a major with an oversize frame. The 17-year-old Chang did it with the fabled Prince Graphite.

Oddly and poignantly, neither of these teenagers would ever match these achievements, despite having Hall of Fame careers. Shriver would somehow never reach another Grand Slam final, and Chang would never win another. Here are a few notes on these solitary landmarks, starting with Chrissie and Pam.

*****

—I like one of the You Tube comments below this clip: “I used to hate Pam for all those mean comments that she said on ESPN, but I never saw her play before. Now I don’t hate her as much.”

How can you hate her here? Shriver, who came from an East Coast upper-crust enclave and was coached by the Aussie Don Candy, had a dynamic net-rushing style at 16, as well as a self-assurance beyond her years. Notice how she keeps a ball in her hands when she serves (Steffi Graf was the last player of note to do that) and gives it a cocky toss back toward the ball kids after she holds.

—I mentioned last week that Bud Collins called Shriver “The Great Whomping Crane,” which sounds ridiculous but makes some sense after seeing these clips. You don’t see many serves like hers on either tour today. The leap forward at contact is how serve and volleyers hit it; it’s not meant to be an ace, but a set-up shot for the first volley. Stepanek is one of the few who comes to mind who hits it this way now.

—You would have thought at the time that the Prince oversize would make the serve and volley style more dominant, but 11 years later Chang used it to win the French from the baseline. Bigger frames helped returners and baseliners with topspin more than they helped volleyers stick their volleys.

—This was a spirited match and better than I remember (not that I really remember it). It would be more famous if Evert and Shriver had become great rivals. But Pam would ended up being the Andy Murray of her day. She couldn’t get past the Top 2, Chris and Martina. She would go 3-38 for her career against her doubles partner, Martina, and 3-16 against Chrissie. One of those three wins over Martina had come the day before this match.

—A few things to notice: Chris’s quiet grunt; Pam’s athletic 360-degree half-volley; the planes that still traveled directly overhead in those days; a mention from Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade that the Open had equal prize money even then; a mention of Ilie Nastase flying in to coach Chris (huh?); Pam saying, “Oh shoot!” after Chris passes her with a return. Tony Trabert saying, after one Chris winner, “Now that’s a good forehand!”—I was thinking the same thing. And at the end, a possible sighting of my fellow tennis writer Steve Flink, sitting next to Chris’s mom in the player's box. That’s good access.

—How about Chris? She had a deceptively well-rounded game and made everything look easy. You think of her as a grind, but her deft drop shot and lob are also on display here. And she may have had the best passing shots in history. Like the necklace, too.

—Chrissie finally runs Pam into the ground (without seeming to ever breathe hard herself). Shriver the show-woman winds up flat on her back at match point. I like Chris’s pat of Pam’s head as they walk off. She must have thought she’d be seeing a lot more of this girl in finals like this.

*****

—The fifth set of Edberg and Chang is kind of the polar opposite of Evert-Shriver, a grim battle of attrition. It has been overshadowed by Chang’s underhand-serve win over Ivan Lendl earlier that week, but this was a war, too. Still, you see right away how misleading most You Tube highlight clips are. This one gives you every point, rather than just the winners. There were a lot of errors as well; Stefan the Volleyer even drills one into the tape.

—We don’t see many highlights of Edberg these days; maybe it’s too early for us to be nostalgic for his day, the way many of us are for the Borg-Mac days. But it doesn’t take long to remember the characteristic elements of his game: The head rotating up, and then dropping down, as he went into his service motion; the way he cut forward at an angle and stuck his backhand volley, a shot that few have ever hit better; the short shorts. But here he’s less the Serene Stefan that we all remember; he’s fighting for everything and cursing himself. No wonder: Edberg was up two sets to one and now was down a break in the fifth to a 17-year-old. Desperate, he tries to give Chang a taste of his own moonball medicine, but nothing works.

—Bud Collins was in rare form. A big point for Edberg is an “Eiffel Tower point.” He thanks Mao for creating the Cultural Revolution so Chang’s grandparents were forced to leave China, and he could grow up to win this tournament. I’d forgotten that Bud used to say, “Net cord!” every time the ball hit the net. With all due respect, I’m glad no one does that now.

—But this was Chang’s moment. The Tiananmen riots were happening as this was being played, and he watched them at his hotel each night. The day he upset Lendl was the same day that an unknown man stood down a tank in Beijing.

“Before I didn’t know what to think of myself as an American,” Chang told me three year ago. “I was just this little kid who looked different from everyone. That week was the first time I really knew what it meant to be Chinese.” (See my story from 2009 on Chang-Lendl here.)

—Chang had a hungry look in his eye; he wasn’t going to be denied, even by a French crowd that was fully against him. After the Lendl match, Chang said, “When I went out for my next matches, the audience would boo every time I hit a ball and cheer every time my opponent hit it. And that was in the warm-up.” It was worse in the press. A columnist for L’Equipe called him “our little slant eyes,” and he was even referred to as a “trickster” in the Roland Garros program.

—Notice the regular-person handshake, rather than the up-grip the players do now. I think I like today’s style better.

—Break points turned out to be the story of this one: Edberg converted just six of 25. When he hoists the runner-up plate, it seems to hit Edberg that he’s blown his best chance at this tournament and a career Slam. If so, he was right; he’d never get back there.

The Swede had the bad luck to play a man possessed, and a young man discovering himself. Chang would never play with the same kind of desperate resourcefulness. He’d never hit another underhand serve.

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