1989: Michael Chang's inspired and inspiring French Open victory

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The Chinese-American peaked at 17, but his moment endures. (AP)

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Night after night, Betty Chang and her 17-year-old son Michael would turn on the news in their hotel room in Paris. Along with the rest of the world, they stared anxiously as a political protest that had convulsed the Changs’ ancestral Chinese homeland for seven weeks wound to its brutal and inevitable conclusion in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“We were glued to the TV,” Chang told TENNIS Magazine 20 years later. “The tanks came in on the middle Sunday.”

The tournament was the 1989 French Open, and its middle Sunday fell on June 4th. That was the day China’s government cleared Beijing’s most famous public square of thousands of students who had set up camp to demand democratic reforms. The official death toll, after the army rolled in under cover of night, was put at 300, but may have been in the thousands. In China, the event would become known, in Orwellian fashion, as “The June 4th Incident.”

“It made fighting to win a tennis match seem like peanuts,” Chang said. “By the time the next week was over, my goal was to put a few smiles on the faces of Chinese people around the world.”

The following day, June 5, the world was given the most lasting image of the Tiananmen protests. Rather than putting smiles on faces, it made jaws drop. An unidentified man in civilian clothes, widely called “The Unknown Rebel,” was videotaped single-handedly bringing a formation of tanks to a halt at an intersection near the square.

That same day in Paris, Chang walked onto center court at Roland Garros to face No. 1 seed Ivan Lendl. Their fourth-round match would create many lasting images of its own. It was a four-hour war of attrition and three-act drama that bent the rules of the game to the point where the match began to teeter on the anarchic. Even before it was over, as an outraged Lendl prepared to serve the final point to a tearful and seemingly possessed Chang, the American commentator Barry Tompkins called it a “magic moment of the sport.”

Chang was just the 15th seed, but he had reason to feel like he could hang with the three-time champion. He had dropped just one set in his first three matches, which included a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 win over fellow California teenager Pete Sampras. Against Lendl, though, he lost the first two sets and appeared to be overmatched. Chang’s serves and forehands floated softly and landed short. What’s more, he knew that Lendl was well aware of his weaknesses.

“We’d played in an event the year before in Des Moines [Iowa],” Chang said. “Ivan beat me and we rode in the same car back to the hotel.”

Lendl, Chang remembered with a laugh, gave the rookie a little tough love, as only he could do.

“He said, ‘First off, you’ve got no serve. And you’ve certainly got no second serve. You can’t hurt me. You can run but you better develop a weapon to survive out here.’”

“I worked on those things,” Chang said, “and I was able to hurt Ivan the next year at the French with them.”

Chang was a grinder at heart, but he had to change the dynamic against Lendl on this day. He turned the tide in the third and fourth sets with inspired all-court play. But just as he worked himself back into the match, Chang cramped. At 2-1 in the fifth, he began to walk to the chair to retire, but stopped halfway there.

“I thought, ‘You’ve fought this far, why would you quit?’ I had a conviction that I would finish the match any way I could. I decided I would do anything out there, lob, moonball, go for winners.”

Desperation paid off. As the fifth set progressed, Chang would take pace off the ball and back his opponent into one corner, then go for broke up the other line, leaving Lendl well out of position. The packed stadium roared incredulously as Chang kept finding ways to survive.

Chang bunted service returns straight into the air and followed them to net. He paced the sidelines during changeovers rather than sit down and risk not being able to get up. After one point, he took so long drinking water that he received a time violation warning, then kept drinking anyway. With each of his successful gambits, the Parisian crowd became more intensely involved in the action.

At 4-2, 15-30, Chang went even further. He set up in his usual service stance, but instead of tossing the ball up, he dropped it and flicked a vicious, side-spinning underhand serve. A startled Lendl, unsure of how to react, moved forward too quickly and ended up coming in behind a weak approach. Chang’s passing shot skimmed the tape and Lendl couldn’t handle the volley. Chang stalked forward, pumping his arms wildly. Audience members gasped, shrieked, shook their heads and looked at each other to confirm that they’d just seen what they thought they’d seen.

If any tennis match deserved a final dramatic twist, it was this one. Chang, the innocent California kid turned Machiavellian ringmaster for a day, provided it—he vowed to do anything to win, and he had one more ploy up his short sleeve. Lendl set up to serve down 3-5, 15-40—double match point against him. He missed his first serve. Chang, fidgeting uncontrollably, walked all the way up to a spot about a foot behind the service line.

The crowd whistled with a mix of confusion and derision. Lendl began to bark at the chair umpire. When it was clear that nothing would be done about Chang’s position or the crowd noise, he shook his head in frustration and resignation, as if he knew that he couldn’t fight destiny on this day. His second serve clipped the netcord and bounded long. Chang covered his face and fell to the ground in tears of pain and joy.

The French audience stood and cheered as Chang exited center court, still sobbing. But amid questions of his sportsmanship from the press and some former pros, they soon turned on him. Before his semifinal against Andrei Chesnokov, the Roland Garros program hyped the match as the “The Russian vs. the Trickster.”

“I knew the crowd was against me,” Chang said, “but I was inspired by the Tiananmen situation. It was by far the most emotional tournament I ever played.”

Chang would go on to upset Stefan Edberg in five sets in the final to become the youngest male Grand Slam champion (he still is). His win, along with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario’s on the women’s side, was a harbinger of generational change in the sport. Among that new generation were the next great wave of American men: Chang, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, and Andre Agassi. Chang’s Slam win was the first of many for them.

Two decades later, Lendl offered no opinion on Chang’s tactics that day, just terse respect for his achievement.

“Lots of times a lesser player could beat me and not back it up,” Lendl said. “You’d have to say he was a lesser player then, but Michael backed it up.”

Two weeks after his miracle in Paris, Chang traveled to Wimbledon. He spotted Lendl in the players’ lounge.

“I wasn’t sure how he would react,” Chang said. “But he walked up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Great French Open, Michael. Congratulations.’”

The Tiananmen protests were snuffed out by the Chinese government and never repeated on a similar scale. Chang’s title turned out to be a scintillating peak that he would never reach again.

“Before,” Chang said, “I didn’t know what to think of myself as an American. 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.”

Twenty-five years later, his win over Lendl remains a surreal, one-of-a-kind moment when tennis briefly merged with world history, and when a 17-year-old player went deeper into himself than he dared to go again. Chang would never win another major. He would never again play with such desperate resourcefulness. He would never hit another underhand serve.

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