25 Years Ago Michael Chang Ushered in a Golden Age of American Men’s Tennis at the French Open

The summer of 1989 began in Beijing. College students in China’s capital protested a hardline government that had thwarted populist political and economic reforms. The government responded with tanks and assault rifles, killing and wounding a still unknown number of civilians.

Seventeen-year-old Michael Chang was in Paris playing a tennis tournament: The French Open. It was only his second appearance at Roland Garros and only the fifth Grand Slam tournament of his young career. Whenever he wasn’t busy with a match or practice, Chang was in front of the television, keeping track of the events unfolding in Beijing. Michael Chang was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. But both of his parents were born in the Republic of China, which Americans know as Taiwan and which China insists on calling “Chinese Taipei.” Chang’s connection to China, however tenuous, wasn’t lost on him.

Reflecting on his 1989 French Open performance in 2009 Chang said, “What it was really about was an opportunity to bring a smile upon Chinese people’s faces around the world when there wasn’t a whole lot to smile about.”

Americans in Paris

My introduction to Michael Chang came a few months earlier, through a feature story in Boys’ Life magazine about a pair of American teenage tennis phenoms who were “so good that fans may soon forget about Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.” One was an 18-year-old from Las Vegas with a top-10 ranking and a gorgeous mullet named Andre Agassi. The other was Chang. At the time Chang had won just a single tournament, a Grand Prix event in San Francisco, and whose best showing in a Slam was advancing to the Round of 16 at the 1988 U.S. Open. What made Michael Chang remarkable—and what made him worthy of being paired with Agassi, who had already won seven singles titles and appeared in the semi-finals of two majors—was what he had been able to accomplish at such a young age. He won a USTA Junior national title when he was 12 and became the youngest ever USTA Boys 18s champion at 15. In 1987, also at age 15, Chang became the youngest player ever to win a men’s singles match at the U.S. Open.

Michael Chang, from the aforementioned issue of Boys Life. (Photo by Russ Adams Productions)

Michael Chang, from the aforementioned issue of Boys Life. (Photo by Russ Adams Productions)

Michael Chang entered the 1989 French Open seeded 15th, behind five other Americans, including Agassi (fifth) and an aging Jimmy Connors (ninth). The United States was well represented in the draw despite the fact that no American man had won a Grand Slam in nearly five years and no American man had won in Paris since Tony Trabert in 1955. After three rounds, Chang was the only seeded American remaining. (Three unseeded players from the U.S. had also advanced to the fourth round, including Jim Courier, who would win titles at Roland Garros in 1991 and 1992.) Chang was dominant in his early round matches. In the second round he routed fellow young American Pete Sampras 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. A straight-set victory over Francisco Roig in the round of 32 earned Chang a date with top-ranked Ivan Lendl.

Chang v. Lendl, the Banana Binge

Czechoslovakia’s Ivan Lendl had already secured his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats. (It was still Czechoslovakia back then.) Entering the summer of 1989 Lendl had won seven Grand Slam singles titles—including the 1989 Australian Open—and had spent much of the previous five years as the world’s top-ranked player, holding the No. 1 slot for more than 200 weeks. Lendl’s showings at Roland Garros had been especially impressive. He’d won three of the previous five French Opens and had appeared in the final five times. Entering the fourth round of the 1989 French Open, Lendl had not dropped a single set.

Chang played Lendl on June 6, one day after an anonymous Chinese protester stood in front of a column of tanks on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue and became the subject of one of the most recognizable and important photographs of the late twentieth century. The media had taken to referring to Chang as a Chinese-American, a description that the New Jersey native embraced. The American teen had no qualms about representing, on the Paris clay against the world’s best player, people of Chinese heritage around the world. Chang, who has always been outspoken about his Christian faith, believed that God had put him in such a position.

No one was surprised to see Lendl open the fourth round match by taking the first two sets. But Chang managed to win the third, 6-3. Chang broke Lendl’s serve on the sixth game of the fourth set (thanks to a Lendl double fault), by which time the world’s best player was showing signs of mental fatigue.  A confrontation with the umpire in the set’s seventh game would cost Lendl a point and a chance to counter with a break of his own. Chang took the fourth set 6-3 and forced a fifth.

Lendl’s tirade at the expense of the umpire afforded Chang some much needed rest, but he was fighting leg cramps and unsure of whether he’d be able to continue. Early in the fifth, he considered forfeiting. “It crossed my mind to say, ‘Who am I kidding here? I’m playing against the No. 1 player in the world, I’m throwing these lob shots and I can’t move worth beans,'” he told Jerry Crowe in a 2009 Los Angeles Times interview. “And I started to think to myself, ‘I’ll get into the locker room and people will pat me on the back. I’ll get to the press conference and people will say, ‘Great effort today.'”

But Chang didn’t quit. He kept playing. To compensate for his lack of legs, Chang relied on “moon volleys,” deep, high shots that, thanks to heavy topspin, manage to land on or just inside the baseline. Whenever there was a break in play, he went on a banana binge, hoping that potassium would be the remedy for his cramps. Lendl and Chang traded service breaks and, with deciding set tied 3-3, Chang appeared unable to move, but he had enough tricks to stay competitive. At one point he resorted to using an underhand serve. The tactic worked, as did everything else Michael Chang tried that day. He ended up winning the final three games and the match: 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

Michael Chang Underhand Serve vs Ivan Lendl (French Open 1989) [HD] from Hykha on Vimeo.

Chang v. Edberg, for History

Upsetting Lendl and advancing to the quarters alone was enough to secure Chang’s status as one of the game’s most promising youngsters. But the bracket worked in Chang’s favor. In the quarters he faced Ronald Agénor, an unseeded player who emerged from the weakest bracket in the draw. (Granted, in 1989 the French Open only seeded 16 players. If there were 32 seeds, as there are today, Agénor likely would have been seeded in the 20s.) Chang dispatched Agénor in four sets then met Andrei Chesnokov in the semis. Chesnokov had done Chang the favor of upsetting defending champion Mats Wilander. Chang also defeated Chesnokov in four sets, earning a trip to the French Open final, where third-seeded Swede Stefan Edberg awaited.

Edberg, who was only 23 at the time, was a three-time Grand Slam winner, but he hadn’t had as much success on clay as he’d had on other surfaces. Still, he dropped only a single set in 1989 at Roland Garros prior to his semifinal contest against second-ranked Boris Becker. Edberg needed five sets to defeat Becker, a young German who would go on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1989.

Edberg was the favorite, but Chang had defeated the Swedish star earlier that year in the third round of the Newsweek Champions Cup at Indian Wells. Chang opened the match with an ace and easily won the first set 6-1. Edberg responded by winning the next two sets, 6-3, 6-4. In the fourth set, Chang saved three break points during the third game and five during the seventh to stay on serve. He eventually broke Edberg’s serve in the tenth game, capturing the fourth set 6-4.

By the fifth set, both players were exhausted and play had gotten sloppy. The first game of the final set went to deuce six times before Edberg eventually won, going up a break. Chang answered by breaking Edberg twice to take a 3-1 lead. The American youth remained in control for the remainder of the match, winning the fifth set and the championship.

Champion Michael Chang and runner-up Stefan Edberg at the 1989 French Open final.

Champion Michael Chang and runner-up Stefan Edberg at the 1989 French Open final.

By defeating Edberg and winning the French Open, Michael Chang became the youngest man ever to win a Grand Slam singles title, a distinction he holds to this day. He was also the first American man to win the French in 35 years and the first American man of his generation to win a Slam.

Generation Tennis

Say what you want about Generation X, but its achievements in men’s tennis are unimpeachable. American men won 12 of 15 Grand Slam singles titles from 1992 through 1995 and a total of 28 from 1989 through 2003. Little more than a year after Chang won in Paris, 19-year-old Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open, the first of his 14 Grand Slam championships. Jim Courier would break through next, winning the French Open in 1991 and 1992 and the Australian in 1992 and 1993. After the 1992 Australian Open, Courier became the first American of his generation to be the world’s top-ranked player. Agassi would win his first of eight Slams at Wimbledon in 1991. From February 1992 through November 2000, American men (specifically Sampras, Agassi, and Courier) would hold the number-one ranking for 445 weeks. During that time, men from other nations held the top spot for just 27 weeks. That impressive American dominance of an entire generation of men’s tennis—rivaled only by the dominance of the Australian men in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s—began in Paris in 1989 with Michael Chang gutting out a win over Ivan Lendl in the fourth round of the French Open then upsetting Stefan Edberg in five sets in the final.

Michael Chang never won another Grand Slam, and he was soon eclipsed by his more esteemed peers, but he was hardly a one-hit wonder. He won a total of 34 singles titles in his career, including seven Masters Series titles, and advanced to the finals of Grand Slams three more times (the 1995 French, the 1996 Australian, and the 1996 U.S. Open). In September 1996, more than seven years after his breakout performance in Paris, Chang captured the world’s No. 2 ranking. He retired in 2003 with a career record of 662-312. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2008.

Michael Chang holding the 1989 French Open trophy. (Photo from Sports Illustrated)

Michael Chang holding the 1989 French Open trophy. (Photo from Sports Illustrated)

Regardless of how the remainder of Chang’s career played out, his heroics at the 1989 French Open will not and should not be forgotten. As a 17-year-old whose heritage had connected him to world-changing events on the other side of the globe and turned him into a symbol of hope for many, Michael Chang managed to do something that no other 17-year-old had done before or has done since. He ended a Grand Slam drought for American men’s tennis players and won a tournament that no American man had won since the 1950s. And he began a period of American dominance of the men’s game, the likes of which we may never see again.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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