Any British tennis enthusiasts reading this piece can probably tell you a thing or two about Grand Slam droughts. Andy Murray's success at the US Open in September 2012, ended 76-years of British hurt in the male game, so we can be forgiven for a lack of sympathy when another nation experiences what they perceive as a dry period in the sport. In 1989, America had gone a whopping five years without seeing one of their finest men lift a Grand Slam trophy, which in terms of a country with such a proud tennis history, was an age.
This relatively poor run was not expected to end at the 1989 French Open, with none of the five seeded American players - Andre Agassi, Tim Mayotte, Jimmy Connors, Aaron Krickstein or Michael Chang - particularly fancied to claim the Coupe des Mousquetaires. But during two unforgettable weeks in May and June of 1989, a 17-year-old Michael Chang stunned the tennis world, becoming the youngest-ever winner of a Grand Slam men's singles event and acting as a laxative to the blockage of American champions. And along the path to this title, Chang would be involved in one of the most memorable matches in French Open history; his fourth round victory over Ivan Lendl a triumph of will, and mind over body, as Chang dug into every inch of his soul, and streetwise fighting qualities, to achieve a remarkable win.
Chang, born in Hoboken, New Jersey, had always looked destined for tennis stardom. At the age of just 12 he won the USTA Junior Hard Court singles, and at 15 he became the youngest player to win a main draw match at the US Open. Born to Taiwanese parents, Chang would often be described as Chinese American, a title that would have extra relevance due to the political unrest developing in the Far East during the championships. Chang wasn't only winning matches at Roland Garros for himself and his country, but in his eyes he was also playing for the distressed Chinese population.
If Chang was looking to establish himself on the circuit, then the man who had very much been there, done it and worn the t-shirt was Czechoslovakia's Ivan Lendl. Recently returned to his rightful position as world number one, Lendl had already won the Australian Open, three US tournaments, and the German Open in Hamburg, and was looking to add to his impressive French Open haul of three titles in the last five years. Lendl's main obstacle in the top half of the draw appeared to be defending champion Mats Wilander, not an American teenager playing in just his second French Open, and fifth Grand Slam singles event. But one of the new kids on the block was a lot less naff than the boyband, as Lendl would discover to his cost.
Before their clash, both Chang and Lendl were in imperious form during the opening three rounds of the tournament. Despite losing the opening set to Belgium's Eduardo Masso, Chang only yielded six more games in a four set first round win, before beating a 17-year-old American called Pete Sampras (whatever happened to him?), dropping just three games in the process, and losing eight games in seeing off the Spanish qualifier Francisco Roig. Lendl was just as impressive, winning in straight sets over Patrik Kühnen, Derrick Rostagno, and Darren Cahill. Their clash was scheduled for Monday June 5, but before the two would meet, political events in China would grab the attention of the world, and the Chang family watching the news unfold on a television in a Paris hotel.
The mainly student-led protest at Tiananmen Square in Peking (Beijing) had been instigated following the death of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang. For seven weeks the protesters occupied the square, mourning the death of their idol, and aiming at gaining greater democratic rights for the people within the country. The Chinese Government, desperate to avoid "social chaos", acted in the strongest possible terms, as tanks rolled in to quash the uprising, with people shot dead in cold blood. Early press reports in the UK put the death toll at 2600, although the exact figure has never accurately been detailed. For Chang and his family watching in the French capital, the scenes were chilling.
Speaking in 2009, Chang admitted that the shocking images acted as a motivational force throughout the championships: "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. I honestly feel that that was God's purpose for allowing me to be able to get through those matches." A deeply religious man, Chang would again point to an intervention from a higher force when at his weakest point against Lendl, but we have a bit of ground to cover before we get to that point.
Initially it seemed as if the match would be a bridge too far for Chang, as Lendl easily took the opening two sets 6-4 6-4. Yet the youngster battled back to take the next 6-3, thus taking the first set off Lendl in the tournament, Lendl's unforced error count of 19 not helping his cause. When Chang broke Lendl in the sixth game of the fourth set, the Czech double-faulting at the most inopportune moment, it was very much game on.
The usually placid Lendl was visibly rattled, moaning at both the condition of the court and the umpire, and after failing to take advantage of three break points in the very next game, his patience snapped after what he perceived as a bad call. Claiming that umpire Richard Ings cheated him every time was not one of Lendl's wisest moves, his show of petulance leading to a code violation and a point penalty, hence gifting the game to Chang. During the furore, Chang took the chance to leave the court and freshen up, another bone of contention with an already bubbling Lendl. Although Chang would go on to square the match, his biggest battle was just beginning.
At the end of the fourth set, Chang started varying his shots from the baseline, taking the pace off the ball and playing numerous "moon shots". Chang explains: "Toward the end of the fourth set, I started to cramp anytime I had to run really hard. So I resorted to hitting a lot of moon balls, and trying to keep points as short as possible. If I had an opportunity to go for a winner, I'd go for it." Over three and a half hours on court had taken its toll on Chang, his calfs and thighs tightening up under the strain, greatly restricting his freedom of movement. Although Chang immediately broke Lendl in the fifth set, his dehydration was such that he tried desperately to play catch-up, drinking water and consuming bananas at increasingly regular intervals to fix the problem. It was starting to look like a fight that the youngster was fast losing however.
The moon shots continued in the second game of the set (which Chang took to lead 2-0), the crowd whistling and gasping at the tactics employed, although the visibly tiring Chang had probably blocked out most peripheral elements from his body by this point. It soon became apparent though as to why Chang had been adopting this approach, as between each point the water guzzling resumed and his body stretching routine became more and more frequent. The third game was as painful to watch as it must have been to play it, Chang simply unable to move, his body seemingly giving up on him, just as a marathon runner experiences when hitting the wall.
At 2-1 up in the final set, Chang simply couldn't move, and what had at first threatened to be a classic French Open match, looked as if it would end in a damp squib. Indeed, such was the extent of Chang's immobility that he walked towards the umpires chair with the intention of calling an end to proceedings. "I was really close to quitting," Chang later admitted. "I started to say to myself, 'Who am I kidding here? I'm 17 years old and I'm playing against the No. 1 player in the world. It wouldn't be so bad to just call it a day.'" But something struck Chang at his lowest moment, a sense that quitting wasn't an option. "When I got to the service line, I got an unbelievable conviction of heart. Looking back, I really feel like it was the Lord kind of telling me, 'Michael, what do you think you're doing here?' If I quit once, the second, third, fourth or fifth time that I am faced with that kind of circumstance, that kind of difficulty, I'm going to quit again." Win or lose, Chang was going to fight until the end.
Watching the next game it was difficult to comprehend that here was a 17-year-old boy battling not only the world number one but his own physical state too. From somewhere, Chang dug out winners to break Lendl once more, only to then be broken back immediately. At 3-3, and with Chang looking about as nimble as Bella Emberg, Lendl was in the box seat, yet little did we know that he had just won his last game of the match. The final point of the seventh game demonstrated to us all the determination of Chang. Screaming out in agony every time he had to stretch, the pain evident in each stroke, Chang once again broke Lendl.
The next two games would produce a couple of moments of youthful bravado, as Chang edged ever closer to the defining win of his young life, and his whole career. Trailing 15-30 on his own serve, Chang was palpably struggling, when he made a decision that would be synonymous with him forever; he would serve underhand. "Then at 15-30, spur of the moment, I was just like, I'm going to throw an underhand serve in here, cause I'm not doing anything off my first serve anyways. Let's see if maybe I can scrape a point. I hit the underhand serve, Ivan was kind of surprised about it, moved, kind of got squeezed in because of the spin and had to come in because the serve was so short. I hit a passing shot, clipped the tape and it went off the top of his racket and the crowd went absolutely nuts," stated Chang. Lendl, who was already fighting his own mental state, walked back to the baseline tapping his head, seemingly unable to put this kid away. "You could really tell that he was starting to unravel mentally," said Chang, and as the American closed out the game to lead 5-3, the miracle was almost a reality.
The American player Todd Martin once described Chang's underhand serve as "...the last stone that felled Goliath," and it was an accurate assessment. Lendl simply had no answer to the fighting qualities and improvisation of Chang, and come the denouement there was more to follow. At 15-40 on Lendl's serve, Chang made another decision that would pay dividends, advancing to the service line in an attempt to distract his opponent. As Chang slowly walked forward, the crowd again became involved, whistling and laughing at the apparent act of intimidation of the American. The tactic worked; an already disturbed Lendl was rattled so much that he served a double fault which ended the match. Chang collapsed on to his back, in relief as much as triumph, crying tears of joy as he dragged his weary dehydrated body back to his chair. According to press reports, he was not the only player reduced to tears after the epic fourth round clash.
'Teeny bopper Chang makes Lendl weep!' trumpeted the Daily Express headline, Malcolm Folley commenting that Lendl had left Centre Court in tears after being "humiliated by a cramp-crippled teenager serving underarm". The 16,500 capacity crowd stood in appreciation for the victor, amazed at what they had just witnessed, and applauding Chang's bravery as well as his win. In all, the match had lasted for four hours and 37 minutes of the most intense tennis, Chang somehow coming back from two sets down, and winning a physical and mental battle over his more experienced opponent. Chang could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels, thinking that the hard work had been done. This lad was made of sterner stuff though.
Chang overcame Ronald Agénor and Andrei Chesnokov, both in four sets, to set up a final clash with Stefan Edberg. Although Chang won the first set, Edberg took the next two, meaning more hard work for the youngster if he wanted to become America's first French Open winner since 1955. Saving nine break points in the third and seventh games of the fourth set was the turning point of the final, as again Chang showed balls defying his youthful age. After three hours and 41 minutes, Chang completed another comeback, and with it ended America's five-year wait for a male Grand Slam singles winner.
Chang's win was not only significant to the boy himself, but also to the wider picture of American tennis. Speaking on behalf of Americans such as Agassi and Sampras, Jim Courier indicated that Chang's 1989 French Open win had proved the catalyst for what was to follow: "We recognised very quickly after Michael won that it was not an insurmountable task. Something that seemed so far away was right in front of you at that point." Where Chang dared to tread, others followed, Sampras winning the first of his fourteen Grand Slam titles at the 1990 US Open, before Courier, Agassi and Roddick added to America's impressive haul in the next decade or so. And to think, if Chang had done the sensible thing, had given in to what his body was telling him during the Lendl match, then the American misery would have dragged on for that little bit longer, and their thirst for success would have been as needy as Chang's dehydrated body on June 5, 1989.
"I've gone back in the past to look at the videotape. I still can't tell you how I won that match," commented Chang in 2009. Having watched extensive highlights for research purposes, I would have to concur with the man himself. But a combination of Chang's stubbornness and cleverness, coupled with a rare moment of mental frailty from Lendl, gave us one of the most extraordinary tennis matches of the eighties, a fairytale story that for once was real.
Jose Higueras, Chang's coach at Roland Garros, probably sums it up as good as any: "There are moments in sports, special moments when a bunch of small things come together and it becomes a big thing. You have the young kid cramping against the No. 1 player in the world, the big stadium going crazy - it all came together and it made a great story." So true.