When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.
Reflections on Michael Chang
By Joel Drucker
Newly-named Hall of Famer Michael Chang turns 36 on February 22. Yet while his three other most notable rivals, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and, eventually, Andre Agassi, were automatic inductees, the case for Chang was less emphatic. After all, he had only won one Slam. Another man on this year's ballot, Sergei Bruguera, had earned a pair. And other one-time Slammers such as Pat Cash and Michael Stich had failed in previous ballots.
So what were the factors that in the end have made Chang's legacy so powerful?
Probably most of all it was the saga of how he won that single Slam. It truly is as good a fable as you'll ever see in tennis history.
Start with the long drought of American success at Roland Garros. When Chang showed up at Roland Garros in 1989, it had been 34 years since an American man had earned the singles title. Each year, that 1955 victor, Tony Trabert, would wax on the woes Americans faced on the rough, slow surface. And each year, despite the occasional flicker of hope, Americans would leave Paris empty-handed.
Added to this was a dry period in American tennis. Not since 1984 had an American man won a Grand Slam singles title. As Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe faded, it was uncertain who had the goods to be the next great American.
Continue with the persistence, confidence and helpful ignorance of the 17-year-old Michael Chang. Practicing frequently that spring under the tutelage of a wise claycourt player, Jose Higueras, Chang wondered if he had the goods to win the title. Well, maybe in a year or two, said Higueras. Countered Chang: Why not this year? As Chang joked years later, "I didn't even know what I didn't know."
Making his way quietly through his first three matches - including a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 pummeling of Sampras - Chang occupied a cozy room in the Sofitel Hotel with his mother, Betty (having stayed at that hotel, I can assure you it's a tight fit for two), who each night cooked his favorite dishes.
Then things took a major turn. In the fourth round, Chang took on number one seed and three-time Roland Garros champion Ivan Lendl. Lendl won the first sets. Chang took the next two, but as the fifth got underway, he began to feel the onset of cramps. He was even tempted to quit, and at one point began to walk in the direction of the umpire's chair.
"But something inside of me stopped," said Chang. "I guess I knew that if I quit then, it would always be easier for me to quit in the future."
Soldiering on, throwing up moonballs, drop shots and even, on one point, an underhand serve, Chang disrupted Lendl in a manner more resembling a cagey junior than a top-flight pro. Uncertain whether to rapidly end the points or prolong them, Lendl grew tentative. At match point on Lendl's serve, Chang stood right on top of the service line - and elicited a double-fault. Deeply religious, Chang has always loved referring to this as a matchup between David and Goliath. But in this case the metaphor fit perfectly.
If not quite an afterthought - he still had to work quite hard to win them - Chang's remaining three matches continued the incredible journey. Tough wins over Ronald Agener, Andrei Chesnokov and, in the finals, Stefan Edberg, had brought Chang an incredible victory - one he also attributed to that month's student protests in his ancestral homeland.
Says Jim Courier, "Michael's win opened the door. He showed all of us we had what it took not just to compete for these big titles, but to win them."
And yet, despite being the gatecrasher, over the remaining 15 years of his career, Chang would never match that remarkable triumph. His father Joe once told me, "Michael won his first Slam as a boy. Now he'd like to win one as a man."
It was not to be. Despite reaching three additional Slam finals, Chang never earned a second Slam.
But he'd taken every step possible. "Michael improves seven percent a year," Agassi once said, speaking with both awe and respect at his rival's constant ability to enhance his game (not until late in his career did Agassi begin making similar investments of his time). Whether using a longer racket, altering his technique, pondering new approaches to fitness, preparation, nutrition or anything else, Chang was determined to leave nothing on the table.
Of all the members of his distinguished generation, fate had it that Chang was the player I wrote about the most. Over the course of a decade, I profiled him five times, often conducting interviews that lasted several hours. The same diligence that marked his tennis surfaced when writing about Chang and interviewing him. He could never be accused of being glib, facile or inattentive.
He's remained that way since retiring at the end of 2003. More recently he's been helping coach Chinese woman pros, as well as devoting his time to creating a tennis academy in China.
For me the most fascinating aspect in covering Chang was the way his tennis was linked to his spirituality. We journalists tend to be a secular lot, so for years I was struck by how much my fellow writers recoiled whenever Chang would invoke a higher power. Being Jewish, I suppose it would have been natural for me to feel this way too when Chang invoked Jesus. But for reasons I'll never quite grasp, when I first started writing about Chang, television analyst Mary Carillo dared advise me that I had the intellect and skills required to pursue the meaning of Chang's spirituality. And so, on a bit of faith and perhaps eager to find a new angle, I did - and uncovered a gold mine.
For Chang's religion was heartfelt - and his heart was the key to his oncourt success. In his own way, Chang's spirituality was a way of raising the gauntlet, of daring people to enter new territory. Journalists, as well as many others, grow uncomfortable when confronting their own matters of the heart and soul. So the contradiction was clear: Chang's religion was taboo, but it was fine to hear another player talk about how much money he'd earned playing an event. It's easy to feel superior to a man of commerce.
Perhaps, at the last, Chang's greatest strength was his ability to bring out the best in others. On the court, Chang did this frequently, his earnest commitment and unmatched tenacity often triggering the very best tennis on high-stakes occasions from Sampras, Agassi, Boris Becker, Thomas Muster and Stefan Edberg. If that skill proved to be Chang's undoing in his quest for a second Slam, surely by enriching so many, Chang earned a darn good triumph: the supreme respect of his peers as a formidable competitor.
Joel Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first hit the airwaves in 2003, most notably as co-producer and writer of "Center Court," as well as working for Tennis Channel at many tournaments as an analyst and writer and since 2006 authoring this website's "Roving Player" column.
Drucker is one of the world's preeminent tennis historians, having authored dozens of articles on every generation of the game's leading players - from past stars Don Budge and Jack Kramer to contemporary greats Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Along with Tennis Channel colleagues Bud Collins and Steve Flink, Drucker is one of three American writers on the International Tennis Hall of Fame Enshrinee Committee - the group that each year builds the ballot for the worldwide panel of voters. Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of five "must-read" tennis books.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:
Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review