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TBT, 1989 French Open: Michael Chang’s mystical, magical moment
Having reached the final feeling an affinity for the contemporary history that was being made in China, Chang entered Court Central attuned to another historic data point: No American man had won the singles title at Roland Garros since 1955.
Published Jun 11, 2020
Rare, but powerful, are those occasions when a tennis player feels that he or she is competing for a greater cause. When it happens, it’s usually during such team events as Davis Cup, Fed Cup or the Olympics.
But on warm Paris days of June 1989, Michael Chang felt himself connected to an entire nation. The country was China, Chang’s ancestral homeland. In June 1989, Tiananmen Square in Beijing was the site of protests. More than 5,000 miles away, Chang competed at Roland Garros, by day calmly making his way through the draw, by night nervously watching the news with his mother, Betty. “Knowing what was going on there brought a lot of perspective to the tennis,” said Chang.
He was just 17 then, a promising U.S. national junior champion, alongside such touted peers as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras. A year earlier, in his Roland Garros debut, Chang had been ushered out swiftly in the third round by John McEnroe.
But by the time he arrived in Paris in ’89, Chang had won his first ATP singles title and was ranked No. 19 in the world. Still, that was hardly significant contender status. By the time Chang reached the fourth round to take on world No. 1 and three-time Roland Garros champion Ivan Lendl, a tidy run appeared likely to reach its finish.
What happened next remains one of the most dramatic efforts in tennis history. Down two sets to love, Chang rallied to level the match. Late in the fourth, though, he began to cramp. At 2-1 in the fifth, Chang told CNN several years ago, “I almost decided to call it quits, I couldn’t serve, I couldn’t dig out any balls that were hit in the corners and I walked to the service line, to basically the umpire I can’t play anymore, I’m done.”
There came a pause.
“I get to the service line,” said Chang, “and I get an unbelievable conviction, just a conviction in my heart and it almost as if God was saying, what are you doing?”
Instead of retiring, Chang vowed to finish the match. Doing whatever he could to keep the points alive—moonballs, sharp drives, even the first underhand serve of his life—Chang eventually arrived at match point with Lendl serving at 3-5, 15-40. Here, another tactic, Chang standing scant inches behind the service line. Lendl double-faulted. An elated and exhausted Chang fell to the ground in joy and tears.
Don’t think what came next was a momentum-fueled title run. Here too, Chang had to work extremely hard. There followed a pair of tight four-setters in the quarters versus Haitian Roland Agenor and the semis versus Russian grinder supreme, Andrei Chesnokov, who had just beaten defending champion Mats Wilander.
Having reached the final feeling an affinity for the contemporary history that was being made in China, Chang entered Court Central attuned to another historic data point: No American man had won the singles title at Roland Garros since Tony Trabert had raised the trophy in 1955.
Chang recalls his surprise 1989 title run in Paris:
His opponent came from Sweden. Between 1974 and ’88, Swedes Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander had won the title nine times. But on this day, Chang’s Swedish opponent was one with a very different playing style than those two baseliners. Stefan Edberg was a slick and sleek net-rusher, armed with some of the best volleys tennis had ever seen. Against Chang, he deployed them superbly. Edberg took a two-sets-to-one lead and broke Chang to start the fourth. Chang broke back, but even then, Edberg would earn four break points at 1-1, five at 3-3, another at 4-all. For every Edberg question, Chang had the answer. At last he broke Edberg at 4-5 to even the match.
By this stage, Edberg was the exhausted one. Chang saw the finish line, playing the kind of airtight tennis that would mark his entire career. A weary Edberg served at 2-5, 15-40 and netted a facile forehand. Chang had become the youngest man to ever win a Grand Slam singles title.
Trabert, on-site that day in Paris, was delighted to see the American drought end. “I’m very happy for him,” he said. “I think he played extremely well. What Michael did so well was take risks under pressure. That’s what some other clay-court players don’t do.”
Said Chang, “God bless everybody, especially the people of China.”