It was the shot felt, if not necessarily heard, around the world. Yet the underhanded serve that Michael Chang used at a critical moment in his upset of heavily-favored Ivan lendl at the 1989 French Open was merely one element in what became one of the most compelling stories in tennis history.
That year, at the age of 17 years and 110 days, Chang became the youngest male singles champion in Grand Slam history—a record that still stands, and may never be challenged. Chang also became the first player from the U.S. to win at Roland Garros since Tony Trabert took the title in 1955. Chang’s mission seemed all the more impossible at the time because tennis in the U.S. was in low ebb. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were fading fast and, in theory, there were few worthy successors on the horizon.
But there’s more. Two days before the Asian-American faced Lendl in what would become a historic fourth-round match, tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to brutally squash the demonstrators engaged in a budding pro-Democracy movement. Chang and his family watched, horrified and distraught, as CNN beamed images of the deadly conflict on the television in their Paris hotel room (no accurate death toll was ever established, but most sources agree that hundreds of protesters were slain by Chinese soliders).
“What it was really about,” Chang would say about his momentous achievement after the tournament, “was the opportunity to bring a smile upon Chinese people's faces around the world when there wasn't a whole lot to smile about. I honestly feel that that was God's purpose for allowing me to be able to get through those matches.”
Young Michael Chang weathered numerous storms over that fated fortnight, not least of which was the criticism and cynicism with which many people greeted the heartfelt professions of his evangelical Christian faith. His chief worries, though, were of a markedly less spiritual bent. They revolved around the physical demands of best-of-five-set tennis on red clay.
Although Chang was a callow youth, he had already won enough ATP matches to earn a No. 15 seeding at Roland Garros, thanks partly to withdrawals by McEnroe and clay-court titan Thomas Muster. With that, he navigated through a four-set first-round win over clay-courter Eduardo Masso, then met a junior rival who also was embarking on a pro career of some note—Pete Sampras. Chang lost just three games, one in each set, in that win.
In the third round, Chang dispatched Spanish dirtballer Francisco Roig in straight sets, setting the stage for his clash with Lendl. The top seed already had three French Open titles to his name, and as the Australian Open champ he seemed to have a good shot at salting away the second leg of a Grand Slam.
A year earlier, Lendl had played Chang in an exhibition match (Chang was a last-minute substitute for Becker). ESPN’s tennis maven Greg Garber reported that after Lendl duly crushed Chang, he told the youngster: “You've got nothing that can hurt me. You've got no serve; your second serve is not very strong. So, pretty much, whenever I play you, I can do whatever I want, however I want, and I'm going to beat you pretty comfortably like I did today.”
Chang’s reply? “I absorbed every word of it, like a sponge.”
Now, a year later, Chang was faced with the task of demonstrating that those harsh but fundamentally accurate words of Lendl had made an impact—and a difference.
The skies above Roland Garros were leaden and the air was chilly at the start; those humid conditions would work in Chang’s favor. They dampened the sting of Lendl’s serve and groundstrokes, giving Chang—one of the most nimble movers and scramblers in tennis history—that extra little bit of time to track down his opponent’s shots and answer them with some measure of authority. That was an enormous break for Chang, because by then even the best of players were sorely tested when a match against the American boiled down to a battle of consistency.
The first point of the match proved prophetic. Lendl served, the men engaged in a long rally, and in the end it was Chang who made the bold move. He attacked the net, popped a cross-court forehand volley into Lendl’s forehand corner, and watched as the passing shot attempt hit the let-cord tape and fell back on his own side.
Love-15. Lendl threw his arms up in frustration and scowled toward his support team.
However, Lendl went on to win the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4. Undeterred, Chang refused to break faith. He managed to scrape out the third set, 6-3, and fought like a pit bull through most of the fourth. By the time he won it (6-3), though, his tenacity was exacting a heavy toll. Wracked by nervous tension, on the brink of exhaustion, facing an implacable, multiple-time Grand Slam champion with a reputation as a supremely fit “iron man,” Chang persevered. Cramping by the late stages of the fourth set, he resorted to hitting moonballs.
Still, the degree of resistance Chang mustered was getting to Lendl.
Things went haywire in the fifth set. Although Chang was clearly suffering more than Lendl (he didn’t dare sit during changeovers for fear he would lock up and be unable to take to his feet again), it was the steely veteran who blinked first. Chang broke him in the seventh game to take a 4-3 lead. But Chang was cramping so badly that in the following game he resorted to the unthinkable—at 30-all, he threw in a sneaky underhand serve. Lendl put the return in play, but Chang won the point with a passing shot.
In his post-match interview, Chang defended himself against critics who thought his use of the underhand serve showed poor sportsmanship. He told us: “I knew I had to try something. I knew that when I’d go up for a serve, I'd cramp.”
To this day, the stroke is taboo for no good reason I can think of.
Chang managed to hold the game. By then, he had thought of quitting numerous times. “I was really close to quitting at some points. I started to say to myself, ‘Who am I kidding here? I’m 17 years old and I’m playing against the No. 1 player in the world. It wouldn't be so bad to just call it a day.’”
But with the fear that quitting would establish a precedent that would make it easier for him to bail the next time, Chang pressed on. Having improbably won that seventh game, Chang found himself a game away from victory at 5-3, with Lendl serving. Chang knocked off two desperate backhand winners to start the game. Then Lendl managed an ace. But Chang scored with another backhand, bringing him to match point.
Lendl then missed his first serve. Sensing his opportunity, Chang moved all the way up to just behind the service line to take the second serve. (See after the underhand serve replay below.) The gambit worked; Lendl fired a let-cord double fault and Chang collapsed to the clay, as much out of fatigue as joy. After four hours and 38 grueling minutes, it finally was over. Transfixed and clearly won over by Chang’s courage, the crowd erupted in volleys of applause.
Ironically, the remarkable drama overshadowed to some degree what Chang would go on to accomplish that week. Number one seeds had been upset in Grand Slam events before the semifinals plenty of times, sometimes even by comparably low seeds. But Chang’s great accomplishment in Paris was his ability to recover from the emotional and physical toll of that epic performance and go on to win.
Finding Haiti’s unseeded Ronald Agenor as his quarterfinal opponent was a stroke of luck for Chang. Chang won that one in four sets, and then faced a gritty Russian grinder, Andrei Chesnokov, whom he beat 7-5 in the fourth. That put Chang in the final against No. 3 seed Stefan Edberg, who had won a five-set semifinal battle of the serve-and-volleyers against Boris Becker.
Chang’s consistency and defense ultimately proved too much for Edberg. It was a highly competitive and hugely entertaining match, but Chang eventually wore down Edberg and won it, 6-2 in the fifth.
By then, it seemed the entire world was tuned in to the parallel sagas going on in Beijing’s famous square and Paris’ 16th arrondissement. Chang’s progress was inspirational for his Chinese fellow countrymen, and the press worked that angle to the hilt. It was yet another embarrassment to the Chinese government, for the Changs had fled their homeland in pursuit of religious freedom and better life.
On a less gut-wrenching front, Chang’s win in Paris opened the floodgates in American tennis. Andre Agassi would reach the French Open final the following year; Sampras would go him one better and win the U.S. Open. Jim Courier would win the French Open in 1991, and 1992, and so on. All of them, at one time or another, have admitted that it was the breakthrough by Chang that fired them up and accelerated their development into titans of the game.
Courier put it best when he observed, “We recognized very quickly after Michael won that it was not an insurmountable task. Something that seemed so far away was right in front of you at that point.”
In his presser after he won the title, Chang summed it up like this: “These two weeks, regardless of what happened today, are going to stay with me my whole life. . . I want to thank everybody for, just, everything.
“God bless everybody, especially the people of China.”
It’s unlikely that a seven-year old child in Wunan, China was even remotely aware of what Chang had accomplished during those two weeks in Paris, but Li Na is as much his successor as is anyone. Who knew that an underhand serve could lead to such momentous accomplishments?