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By Blair Henley | Friday, May 23, 2014

 
Michael Chang French Open

As the 25th anniversary of his Roland Garros title approaches, Michael Chang spoke candidly to Tennis Now about his memories from those improbable two weeks in 1989. 

Photo Credit: Getty 

The red clay of Roland Garros will always hold special memories for Michael Chang. Just 17 years old when he hoisted the trophy in 1989, he remains the youngest men’s Slam winner in history. With no players under the age of 20 inside the ATP’s top 100, it’s a record that may never be toppled.  
 
“It’s very different from when I came out on tour,” the former world No. 2 told Tennis Now. “Myself, Sampras, Courier, Agassi, Bruguera, Ivanisevic – there were a lot of teenagers playing and doing well. There are still good teenagers out there, but it’s just harder to compete with the men now physically.”
 
Now, as he celebrates the 25th anniversary of his lone Grand Slam title, Chang is returning to the French Open grounds to coach surging Japanese player Kei Nishikori, a position the 42-year-old never envisioned for himself. With a 15-year professional career under his belt, Chang is well acquainted with the challenges of life on tour. For that reason, he agreed to coach Nishikori under one condition: He needed to travel with his wife and two young daughters.
 
“For me, it’s just not worth it to jeopardize family life and not be around to watch my kids grow up,” he said. “Kei was like, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ So it’s nice to have my family with me almost 100 percent of the time, wherever I am.”
 
Despite breaking into the top 10 in early May, fans are just now getting to know Nishikori. Chang says the 24-year-old is focused and ready to continue his climb up the ATP leaderboard.
 
“He’s pretty reserved,” Chang explained. “He’s more of a shy, quiet personality. He’s a very hard worker and very dedicated, which I don’t think you always see in every player. He’s not the type to go spend late nights out partying. He has goals that he wants to accomplish.”
 
The Match
 
During his prime, Chang could have been described in much the same way as Nishikori: a soft-spoken kid with his eyes on the prize. With his game built on the explosive power stored in his superhero-sized quadriceps, it’s ironic that the match for which Chang is most well known – his French Open fourth round against then No. 1 Ivan Lendl in 1989 – has been etched in tennis lore thanks to a debilitating bout of muscle cramps.
 
Down two sets to love, Chang battled back to force a deciding fifth set. Three games in, his legs were seizing so severely that he doubted his ability to continue. Ranked No. 19 at the time, he figured his withdrawal against a heavily favored opponent would be met with “pats on the back” in the locker room. “How many people can say they took Ivan Lendl to five sets in the French Open?” he reasoned to himself.
 
With that in mind, the teenager approached the chair umpire, fully prepared to retire from the match on the spot. But as he crossed the service line, he had a change of heart. A devout Christian, Chang remembers feeling like God stopped him “in his tracks,” helping him realize that pulling out in those circumstances might make it easier to choose that option in the future.
 
“I said, ‘Alright Lord, if the task you’ve given me today is to finish the match…then I’m going to finish it.’”
 
His approach for the remainder of that final set was simple: end each point as quickly as possible in an effort to preserve what little energy he had left. Chang even mixed in an underhand serve at 4-3, which was recently named by Roland Garros as one of the top five moments in tournament history. He was as surprised as the spectators when his survival strategy began to pay off.

 
“I was going for shots that I had no business going for, and they were all dropping, they were all going in,” he said. “I just started to play some unbelievable tennis. Points started turning into games and before I knew it, I had won the set and the match.”
 
Trial by Fire
 
Though that win over Lendl helped shape Chang as a tennis player and ultimately proved to be the catalyst for his Roland Garros title, it was what happened next that bolstered his character and his faith like no tennis match could. The French media, perhaps unaccustomed to unabashed acknowledgements of religious affiliation in the pressroom, skewered Chang in the papers after he credited God for his victory.
 
“I started talking and pens would drop,” he said of their reaction.
 
For the remainder of the tournament and for an unfathomable period of “five or six years” afterward, Chang was shunned by French fans.  
 
“I would go out there and they would boo me,” he said. “I would walk up and my opponent would hit a ball and they would go, ‘Yay!’ And I would hit a ball and they would go, ‘Boo!’ It was incredible. I had never felt that before.”
 
After learning to let the negativity “go in one ear and out the other,” Chang and the French fan base eventually smoothed over their rocky start.
 
“They’ve come to know who I am as a tennis player and as a person,” he said. “The subsequent years that I’ve gone to play in Paris, I have such a good relationship with the people there…they are so good to me now. For a period of time, I didn’t like playing in Paris, but after all of that took a back seat, we started to get to know each other. Now it’s a completely different ballgame.”
 
Once a Competitor, Always a Competitor
 
Chang retired in 2003 at the age of 31, but still practices often. In addition to competing in senior events, he trains with Nishikori, who says his coach is still “very good.”  Though Chang admits his body doesn’t recover quite like it used to, he and his contemporaries still take their exhibition matches seriously.
 
“It’s not so cutthroat, not so serious,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we still have our pride, and we still want to play well.”
 
He often sees his former foes during tour stops with Nishikori. Chang is one of several top players who have emerged from retirement to give coaching a try, the men who pushed each other a quarter century ago are now pushing a new generation of players. He keeps things friendly with his one-time opponents.
 
“I’ve played Stefan [Edberg] quite a bit over the last few years in various places around the world,” he said. “I see Ivan out on tour, talk to him a little bit. It’s saying hello, chit-chatting a little bit. The guys who play on Jim [Courier’s] tour, I probably see a little bit more, Jim, Andre and Pete. [Our conversations] are really only tennis related.”
 
Like many of the “celebrity” coaches on tour right now, Chang has helped inspire and fine-tune Nishikori’s game since joining his team before the 2014 Australian Open. Nishikori has since had the best year of his career, becoming the first Japanese man to break into the top 10.
 
Assuming he has sufficiently recovered from the back spasms that caused him to retire mid-way through the Rome final against Rafael Nadal, Nishikori may very well be a French Open title contender. If he does make a run at Roland Garros, he will have the perfect mentor in Chang, a man who made his home on the terre battue for an improbable two weeks 25 years ago.

Follow Blair Henley on Twitter: @blairhenley

 

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