Michael Chang: ‘I chat with Ivan when I see him. But never about the French Open
Thirty years on from his Paris triumph, the 1989 champion on underarm serving, toppling Lendl and how Tiananmen Square tinged success with sadness.
It is one of the most iconic moments in tennis history. Michael Chang, a young American playing only his fifth grand slam event, was cramping in the final set of his fourth-round battle in the 1989 French Open against the world No 1, Ivan Lendl, the colossus who had won the title in three of the five previous years.
At 4-3, 15-30, Chang stood on the baseline and readied himself to serve.
It was then that the flash of inspiration came. Leaning forward and pausing for a moment, Chang delivered an underarm serve, slicing across the ball and taking Lendl by surprise.
Lendl recovered his poise to hit a forehand return and attacked the net but Chang rifled a forehand pass down the line for a winner, helped by the slightest of touches on the net, to add insult to insult. Lendl walked away, tapping his head, while the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier went wild.
“Some people think it was on match point, or in the semi-final or final,” Chang says. “You don’t plan something like that, it was just completely spur of the moment.”
One game later, he had two match points on the Lendl serve at 15-40. Coolly, he walked forwards, taking up an intimidating return position, just beyond the service line. Lendl, usually so cool, duly double-faulted and that was it.
“I had two match points to play so I felt like hey, this was an opportunity, second serve coming, I’m going to take a whack at one of them, so if it goes in, great, if it doesn’t go in, I’ve got one more coming, but at least I [would have taken] a crack at it.”
The underarm serve remains a rare bird in tennis, although the Australian Nick Kyrgios and a few others have used it recently and many coaches have been talking up its value, especially with the likes of Rafael Nadal standing a mile behind the baseline to return serve.
Three decades on Chang, who started it all, is more than happy to discuss it and his incredible run to the title.
He came from two sets to one down to beat Stefan Edberg in the final and at 17 years and 110 days old, remains the youngest man to win a grand slam – a remarkable achievement, especially on clay, where physical strength is so important.
Memories of the 1989 French Open are also mixed with sadness, though, the tournament coinciding with devastating events in China. On 4 June, the Chinese government sent in tanks and opened fire on pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The death toll was reportedly in the thousands, though the exact number has never been officially verified.
The son of Taiwanese parents, Chang was affected more than most. “It was the day before the Lendl match,” he says. “I just focused on tennis and watching the events unfold there.
I think in many ways it was kind of inspirational, because you’re thinking to yourself, wow, here I am fighting for matches, but in comparison, what was going in Tiananmen, it was nothing.”
Chang also needed inspiration of a different sort. With cramp setting in to his legs, he munched bananas and did not sit down at the changes of ends. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get back up,” he says.
Throwing in moon balls to give himself time to recover, he somehow led 2-1 with a break in the final set but at that stage he felt so bad he almost gave up. It was then, he says, that he received a moment of divine inspiration.
A 17-year-old Michael Chang raises his trophy at Roland Garros after his stunning triumph in 1989. Photograph: Pierre Gleizes/AP
“I felt a very strong conviction and it was almost like God was saying: ‘You can quit now [but] if you quit now, every time you’re in the situation, you’re going to quit again’.
It wasn’t really so much [about] going out there and trying to win the match but going out there and trying to finish the match, if I possibly could. Lo and behold, God gave me the match.”
Victory over Ronald Agénor of Haiti in the quarter-finals and then the Russian Andrei Chesnokov in the semis, both in four sets, saw Chang into the final, but few people gave him a chance against Edberg, even if clay was the Swede’s weakest surface.
Chang took the first set but Edberg ripped through the second and third and had countless chances to go up a break in the fourth before Chang rallied again.
“I got one break point in the fourth and I think I saved like 10 or 11 break points in that fourth set, that was a huge difference. Then in the fifth set he got tired.”
Chang, now the coach of Kei Nishikori of Japan, does not expect any special treatment when he arrives in Paris on the 30th anniversary of his win. But each time he walks through the Roland Garros gates, the events of 1989 are on his mind.
“I do enjoy going back,” he says. “It’s a special place for me and the reception that I get there is very warm, regardless of whether I’m coaching or I’m playing, it always brings back fond memories.”
Chang went on to reach three more grand slam finals, at Roland Garros again in 1995 and then at the Australian Open and US Open in 1996, while his ranking peaked at No 2 that same year.
Lendl won only one more slam, at the Australian Open in 1990, but he played in Paris on only two further occasions, never getting past the second round.
Just over a week after his 1989 triumph, Chang was walking through the grounds of the All England Club, preparing to practise for Wimbledon, when he saw a tall figure making his way towards him.
It was Lendl. “I was kind of like: ‘Oh, here he comes!’” Chang says.
“I didn’t know what to expect. He saw me and I was just thinking: I’m going to walk with my head down. He bee-lined right towards me. He walked straight up to me, put his hand out, shook my hand, and said: ‘Michael, incredible job at the French Open.’
Michael Chang now coaches Kei Nishikori. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
“People don’t see that side of Ivan. Most of the time people see someone who is very intense, very stoic, very professional on the court.
People rarely get the chance to see the way that he is off the court. He’s completely different. I chat with him whenever I see him, whether it’s about kids, whether it’s about golf – and sometimes it’s about tennis.
But I’ve never talked to him about the French. He’s never asked me about it.”