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Lendl, then title: Michael Chang's fairytale French Open, 30 years ago
On June 5, 1989, the 17-year-old American stunned Ivan Lendl with a combination of guile and grit.
Published Jun 05, 2019
The admirable Michael Chang is celebrating an immensely important anniversary today that in many ways defined who he is. On the fifth of June in 1989, the then-precocious 17-year-old American displayed his steely resolve, immense heart and a large supply of gumption as he confronted the sport’s preeminent player in the round of 16 at Roland Garros.
The diminutive Chang took on Ivan Lendl, a towering paragon of physicality in the sport. This was David vs. Goliath, a man against a boy, and the best player in the world meeting a promising young warrior. Lendl—who had collected seven of his eventual total of eight major titles, including three French Opens—seemed certain to oust the No. 15 seed and perhaps piece together another title run on the terre battue.
But Chang secured one of the most colossal upsets in modern tennis history, toppling the mighty Lendl, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 despite severe cramping. He eventually claimed the crown, establishing himself as the youngest player ever to garner a men’s title at a major.
In a recent interview, I asked Chang how he succeeded despite battling physical handicaps lesser men would have found unmanageable.
“It wouldn’t happen 99 out of 100 times," he said. "You just don’t normally see the No. 1 player in the world on center court up two sets to love, playing a kid who is 17 years old and struggling physically, and not end up winning the match.
"It is one of those storybook fairytale type of things that you tell your kids on a bedtime story, but not something I can really explain. I have gone back to look at the film, and when I am done watching I still don’t necessarily know how the match was won. I have talked a lot about faith and God. I learned a lot about myself, about not giving up.”
Only an astonishing turn of events allowed Chang to prevail. Lendl set the tempo for two sets before Chang salvaged the third set. By late in the fourth, Chang's cramps were apparent, but the obstinate American still won that set.
“I tried really hard to conceal the cramps," he recalls. "I didn’t want to show anything, because I knew if I did Ivan is going to pick up on what is going on and the situation might get worse. But it got to the point where I couldn’t hide it anymore.”
Lendl did not move Chang around or exploit the angles sufficiently, sticking with his customary plan of attempting to hit through the court and overpower his ailing adversary. Chang’s pain was so excruciating that he nearly retired from the match at 2-1 in the fifth set.
“I was almost ready to go and tell the chair umpire, ‘I am done. I can’t play anymore,’" he recalls. "I actually started walking over there. As I got to the service line, I had an unbelievable conviction of heart. A lot of things flashed through my head. It was almost as if God was questioning me, like ‘Michael, what are you doing?’
"It dawned on me that if I were to quit then, there would be other times I would be presented with the same circumstance on or even outside the tennis court, and if I quit once, the second, third, or fourth times it would be much easier to do it again. I did not want to be known for that. From then on, my only goal was to finish the match.”
Chang fought on valiantly. He was ahead 4-3 in that spellbinding final set, but down 15-30 on his serve and so debilitated that his serve had lost substantial velocity.
“I was just rolling my arm on my serve and my first serve was only going about 70 M.P.H.," Chang says. "At 15-30, I was thinking to myself, ‘I have got to do something different because I am going to lose my serve again. There are only going to be so many more times I am fortunate enough to break Ivan.’
"I remember taking an extra split second before that point and all of a sudden, just spur of the moment, I was thinking , ‘Hey, I should throw in an underhand serve here just to do something different.’”
Lendl was confounded by the sidespin of Chang’s shocking underhand delivery.
“Ivan was jammed so he didn’t hit a clean forehand return. He was forced to come in," Chang says. "I hit a passing shot that clipped off the top of the net and then clipped off the top of his racket, which was probably even more annoying to him. From that point on, it was not just a physical battle but a mental one. That point turned the tide of the match. I held my serve and ended up breaking him to win the match.”
When Lendl was serving at 3-5, he fell behind 15-40. It was double match point for the teenager. Once more, Chang’s ingenuity surfaced. When Lendl missed his first serve, Chang revisited an old tactic from his junior days, standing in exceedingly close for his second serve return, right on top of the service line.
“It crossed my mind because I had done it before," Chang says. "Most of the time my opponent would get nervous and double fault, or hit the second serve without much on it. Then I could go for the return. That was my mentality against Ivan. The crowd was murmuring after he missed the first serve. Ivan had a conversation with the chair umpire, asking for two serves because of the crowd noise. But the umpire said no, and then Ivan double faulted. Standing in so close for that return was a calculation that worked.”
Chang places that triumph in a lofty category: “Very seldom would a player say that one match has changed their career, but that one did for me. To have a match be as important in affecting other parts of my life took it to a whole different level.”
Was it destiny? No one really knows, but Chang’s mother Betty had a premonition before the tournament that was even larger than a win over the world No. 1. As Michael remembers it, “My Mom came up to my Dad and said, ‘I have this really strange feeling that Michael is going to win the French Open this year.’ Dad looked at her like, ‘What are you, crazy?’ My Mom is not the type of person who will say something a little on the crazy side.”
In the final, Chang found himself facing Sweden’s Stefan Edberg, a strikingly composed player who would win the three other Grand Slam singles titles twice. Although it was Edberg’s lone appearance in a French Open final, he was clearly the favorite.
Chang’s mother Betty was present for all of Roland Garros but his father Joe—thinking Michael could lose—had left prior to the Lendl match before returning to Paris for the final. Chang had accounted for Edberg handily at Indian Wells a few months earlier, and his Dad wanted Michael to follow the same game plan this time around.
“My Dad said, ‘We are going to do the exact same thing here in Paris,’" Chang says. "I took both of Stefan’s serves super early, and tried not to give him time to come in. It worked in that first set. I won it very comfortably. I played the same way in the second and third sets. But being the champion that he is, Stefan raised his game. He is probably the only guy I played who can serve-and-volley and I could get the ball down at his shoelaces but he could still stick that volley in the corner. He was beautiful to watch but a pain to play against.”
How did Chang turn it around against the world No. 3?
“To be honest,” he says, “I didn’t really turn it around. I saved 10 or 11 break points in the fourth set and had only one against him. That was when I was ahead 5-4. I converted and that got me the set. On one of the break points I faced, he had me wide on my backhand side. I was so late that my only chance was to go down the line. He was coming in and could have volleyed it away, but let it go, thinking it was going wide. So did I. But somehow that ball curved and caught the outside of the line.”
Chang was much fresher than Edberg in the fifth set. He stopped the Swede for the title, 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. Not only was he the youngest male ever to succeed at a major, but also the first American man to rule at Roland Garros since Tony Trabert took his second consecutive title 34 years earlier.
Fortunately for the victor, no one told him that he was on the verge of making history of a high order.
“I am thankful, “he says, “because the press never asked me about any of that until after the tournament. I was able to play Stefan in the final super excited and not thinking about those records.”
The achievement was monumental, and living up to it was arduous. Heading into Roland Garros in 1990, Chang did not win a match in three European clay-court tournaments before losing in the quarterfinals against Andre Agassi in Paris. “It was probably one of the lowest points I had to go through in my career,” Chang recalls.
And yet, the fact remained that Chang held the distinction of being the first of the “Greatest American Generation” to capture a major. Pete Sampras followed at the 1990 US Open and, in the two ensuing years, Jim Courier and Agassi got on the board. While Sampras amassed a remarkable 14 majors, Agassi secured eight and Courier collected four, Chang never took another of those prestigious prizes after Paris in 1989.
He returned to the French Open final in 1995, losing to the industrious Thomas Muster, and appeared in title-round contests at the 1996 Australian and US Opens. He made it to No. 2 in the world and was eventually inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2008. These days he is coaching Kei Nishikori, among other professional endeavors.
But even with just one major trophy, Chang has nothing to regret. He was a great player and an indefatigable competitor. His career was commendable, and his Paris legacy lives on.
“I wouldn’t change anything, especially with Tiananmen [Square] happening at the same time and the crackdown happening on the middle Sunday of the French Open," says Chang. "So there is a bigger purpose there. I came close to winning another Slam again, but I don’t think any Slam would compare to that one in Paris in the same aspects of physicality and emotion.”
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