Returning to the Spotlight: An Interview with Michael Chang

Saturday, April 12, 2014 /by
With Chang part of his team, Nishikori reached the fourth round of this year's Australian Open, won the title in Memphis, and beat Roger Federer in Miami. (AP Photos)
With Chang part of his team, Nishikori reached the fourth round of this year's Australian Open, won the title in Memphis, and beat Roger Federer in Miami. (AP Photos)

In boxing, they often compare the buzz of getting in the ring to a Class A drug. Being able to shun those adrenaline-pounding moments for an ordinary life requires a clarity of thought and willpower that few great fighters possess.

But in tennis, the only other sport which conjures up such gladiatorial, mano-a-mano combat, it appears that its finest athletes have few problems knowing when to quit. Burnt out by a decade or more of nomadic globetrotting and having forced an increasingly battered body through a relentless schedule, most successful tennis players call time on their career and never look back.

Some take up residence on TV sofas, others settle into a comfortable retirement on the golf course, some even establish academies, but few were ever tempted to return to the circuit as coaches.

Ivan Lendl’s extraordinarily successful partnership with Andy Murray seems to have changed that, as more players are seeking out the greats of yesteryear in hope of gaining that extra edge. One of the latest to come back is Michel Chang. Eleven years after he retired, Chang now advising Kei Nishikori, Asia’s finest male player in a generation.

Having previously said he wasn’t interested in taking up any permanent coaching positions, what changed Chang’s mind? He spoke to TENNIS.com. 

Q: So what made you decide to return to the tour?

Michael Chang: Well, I did periodically return to the game to play some of the Champions Tour events. Last year I went out and played the French and also the U.S Open. This particular situation is a little bit unique and under normal circumstances I wouldn’t normally do it. But Kei is in a unique position right now, obviously being of Asian heritage. There haven’t been a lot of successful Asian male players on tour, and for him to be right up there in the queue to break into the top ten, I felt it was a bit of a unique situation and we have quite a few similarities.

Q: What are the things you feel you can add to Kei’s game?

MC: I feel like there are certain aspects which can be improved. We actually played an exhibition a couple of years ago in Tokyo, and that was the first time I’d met him. We chatted a little bit about his mentality back then, then I saw him at the French last year and I was contacted around about U.S. Open time regarding the possibility of working with him.

There are certain aspects that he’s already improved upon which was evident in Australia in January, and I think he’s heading in the right direction, gaining confidence and his game is improving. Some things are going to take a bit less time to get better and some things are going to take a little longer, but the process has been good so far.

Q: Kei’s an excellent athlete and so solid from the back of the court. So is it all about adding more bite to his game to tackle the big hitters?

MC: I think it really depends on who you’re playing. You don’t want to play one style against everybody, you need to free your style a bit. Against some players you’re going to have to be a bit more patient, against others you’re going to have to be a bit more aggressive. Some players you need to change the pace a little bit. I’d like to be able to give him a little bit of flexibility so he can go through different styles of play rather than just playing one style, one game.

The basis for his game is to be very solid, that’s part of the reason why he’s Top 20 in the world. But against the guys in the Top 10 that he’s looking to beat and overtake, you’re going to have to do something a little different and be a little less predictable.

Q: So you’re looking to give him a few more options.

MC: Yeah that’s part of it. That’s all part of improving and getting better so for example, if he needs to come in a little more and knock off a volley, he’s comfortable enough to do it. 

Q: You mentioned that working with Kei was attractive because there’s been a lack of successful Asian players in men’s tennis. Why do you think this is?

MC: In the women’s game, I think that the general style of play is a little easier to get used to so it’s easier to break through to the higher levels. They tend to play more straight up and down, a little flatter, and the adjustment through the levels isn’t so steep. Men’s tennis is just a very different game so it’ll take more time until we get more Asian players competing at the highest level.

Q: Had you been approached by any other players since you retired?

MC: Yeah I’d been approached to work with some other players, not guys that are on the ATP tour but some younger pros who are trying to break through. I’ve been trying to encourage some of the younger kids that I’ve been hitting with but for me, it’s not something that I really wanted to do on a full-time basis. Even my work with Kei is not on a full-time basis. For me and where I am in my life with family and two small girls, I don’t want to be back on tour full time. But for me to do some training blocks and some of the bigger events and take my family, I felt like it was doable.

Q: How have you found the traveling again?

MC: The travel is fine. I’ve been traveling even when I retired so that’s not really an issue for me. The bigger issue is really family, not wanting to be away for them. And I have to have a passion for what I’m doing. If I don’t feel like it’s worth it to take the time to help somebody or I don’t have a good connection with them, it’s not something I want to take the time to do. At this point in my life, I have the luxury of being able to pick and choose what I want to do.

Q: How does coaching satisfy your natural competitive instinct?

MC: I don’t think it necessarily satisfies the competitive side. Playing on the Champions Tour every now and then is a lot of fun. I think I’ll always have a competitive nature whatever I do, whether it’s in tennis or on the golf course or anything that’s in any way competitive.

As far as coaching goes, I do enjoy coaching in general. Even periodically just helping my dad with his tennis game or helping my niece with her game, or just getting in an encouraging word to people that I’m in contact with. It’s fun to be able to improve and I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing people smile on a tennis court, enjoying themselves and seeing their eyes lighting up and being like, ‘Oh wow, that really helped me. That feels so much better.’

Obviously with Kei, at the highest level, it’s certainly satisfying to be able to see him improve and to be able to see that he’s feeling satisfied and feeling that, ‘Hey, I’m getting better. I’m improving and results are showing.’ I think that’s really the positive thing for me.

Q: What are the most challenging aspects of coaching?

MC: I think the most challenging thing is knowing that some things are going to take time. You’d like to be able to tell someone, ‘Hey step into the ball a little more’ and all of the sudden they do it and from then on you never have to tell them again. 

Unfortunately, as every coach and every teacher will tell you, repetition is part of it. And it takes time. When you’re continuing to repeat things and trying to get them instilled in a person’s game, it takes time in order for those things to be ingrained.

One of the things that I saw when working with some of the younger players here and there; I would give them an encouraging tip or something, and they would make the adjustment very well and be very convinced by it. Then I wouldn’t see them for a month or something like that, and when I was back in town they’d ask me to hit. But all of a sudden, they’re doing what they used to be doing before I started helping them.

I’d say, ‘What happened? You’re not doing all the stuff I was telling you to do?’ And they just don’t realize it. So that’s probably one of the more difficult things but hopefully that won’t happen with Kei. I see him fairly often and Dante (Bottini, Nishikori’s other travelling coach) is doing a great job as well with him. Dante and I have the same mindset in many ways, so hopefully Kei will just continue to keep those things ingrained and we’ll go forwards from here.

Q: In terms of Kei’s career ,what would make this partnership a success for the two of you? Would it be breaking the Top 10 or making more Grand Slam quarterfinals or notching up more wins against the guys in the Top 10?

MC: I think it’s a combination of all those things. It would be great to be able to see Kei in the Top 10 but I think at the same time I would really like to see his results become more consistent. He's had some good ones here and there but they haven’t really been consistent throughout the year, and I’d love to build a habit of consistent results with the opportunities to win more tournaments and doing well in the majors, and, sure, beating some of the top guys.

He’s certainly a lot closer than before. He had some great chances against Rafa at the Australian Open. He was a few points here and there from being up a break in the second and serving for the set.

Q: What is it like for you being back on tour with some of your old rivals, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and Lendl all coaching at the highest level too?

MC: It doesn’t feel any different as I see these guys periodically anyway on the Champions Tour. I’ve played Stefan quite a bit over the last few years and I see Ivan periodically.

Q: Did the sheer amount of success that Lendl has enjoyed with Murray over the past few years play any factor in encouraging you to return to the tour?

MC: Not really. I think if that had been the case, I would have maybe sought some different coaching positions, but I didn’t seek any at all. I was actually very happy for Ivan, I get along very, very well with him. I knew that they’d be a great fit right from the beginning because of the similarities with what Andy’s been through and Ivan’s been there, more so than anybody else. It’s obvious what Ivan has done to help Andy, giving him the confidence to move to the next level. But that had no bearing on whether I took the position or not.

I do think that Andy’s success has probably given other players ideas about hiring past players, so I think it happens more than other way rather than guys like Stefan, myself, and Boris looking for positions to coach. 

Q: Of the guys at the top of the sport right now, who reminds you most of your own game?

MC: I think it would probably be a combination of David Ferrer and Rafa. I think it’s a combination of working very hard and being very diligent, but at the same time playing with a lot of intensity and going after a lot of balls. I think both of those guys have all of those attributes. Certainly having the desire to go out there, wanting to win and not giving your opponent anything. 

Q: If you were playing in today’s era, what would you do a little bit differently?

MC: Well, I think the first thing I’d do is to make sure my equipment was changed! If I was playing with my old equipment against these guys now, it just wouldn’t fly. Certainly wouldn’t be able to do it. With the rackets and strings now, the guys are hitting the ball with so much more pace and spin, and the rackets allow them to do that. Even on the Champions Tour now, no one uses the old technology. We can do so many more things now which we couldn’t do when we were at our peak.

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