French Open Memories, #2: Michael Chang d. Ivan Lendl, 1989

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Michael Chang's win over Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open paved the way for his title run. (AP)

There's nothing like Paris in the springtime, they say. As these 10 epics—the 10 most memorable French Open matches of the Open Era—show, there's also nothing quite as stirring or sensation as tennis in Paris at this time of year.

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 Chang’s ancestral Chinese homeland for seven weeks wound to its brutal 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 communist rulers 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 200, but it was likely between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

“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 face, 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 U.S. commentator Barry Tompkins called it a “magic moment for the sport.”

Roland Garros Moments—Chang defeats Lendl in 1989: 

Chang was seeded 15th, 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 named 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 before in Des Moines [Iowa],” Chang said. “Ivan beat me and we rode in the same car back to the hotel.” On the way, Lendl gave the rookie a little tough love.

“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. He turned the tide in the third and fourth sets with inspired all-court play. But just as he had 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 new 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.

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 side-spinning underhand serve. A startled Lendl 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 diabolical ringmaster for a day, provided it. 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 net cord and bounded long. Chang covered his face and fell to the ground in tears of pain and joy.

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). Years 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.’”

“Before that tournament,” 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.”

Chang would never win another major. He would never again play with such desperate resourcefulness. He would never hit another underhand serve.

—Tennis Channel Plus features up to 10 courts of live action from Roland Garros beginning Sunday, May 27 at 5:00am ET.

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