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Michael Chang: Time to Retire from Tennis?

hirteen years ago Michael Chang was lionized as the youngest man ever to win the French Open and the first American male to win in 36 years. This year he quietly exited Roland Garros after blowing a two-set-to-love lead in a first-round match with an obscure Frenchman ranked 224th.
Michael Chang
Played Out?

     Chang himself has ceased being a marquee name except in cities like Hong Kong, Beijing and Taipei. His ATP ranking has slipped to 116th from 73rd at the end of 2001. For the first five months of 2002 his prize money totaled a paltry $53,835 compared with $483,000 in 2000, $1.2 million in 1997 and a high of $2 million in 1995. Michael Chang now spends half his time competing in Challenger series tournaments offering piddling purses. His most recent win was $7,200 at an April tournament in Calabasas -- and that was one of his biggest wins of the year. Another Challenger event in Tarzana a week later netted him $520.
     Not that Chang needs the prize money to keep himself in tennis balls. His winnings since turning pro at the age of 15 total $18.9 million. And that's not counting an estimated $50 million in endorsements.
     It isn't money that keeps Michael Chang playing tennis. It is God. Or rather, the deep conviction that he has been blessed with his once-unparalleled quickness and killer groundstrokes so that they can be applied to the service of Jesus. A world-class Jesus freak, Michael Chang is animated by the missionary zeal of spreading the gospel to tennis fans worldwide.

     "I used to put too much emphasis on winning and losing, but my perspective changed when I became a Christian," he once told a fan. "It is much easier now to go out and perform because I no longer feel that same pressure -- God has taken it away.  He has given me a great sense of peace.  I've also been very blessed in my life because I have my mom, dad, sister-in-law Diana, and brother Carl (my coach) supporting and praying for me."
     God has not seen fit to grant Chang the level of tennis greatness attained by contemporaries Pete Sampras (six months older) and Andre Agassi (22 months older). Michael Chang has won 34 career titles but his only Grand Slam title came when he won the 1989 French Open at the sensational age of 17 years and 3 months. By contrast his lifelong tennis nemesis Pete Sampras owns 63 titles, 13 of which are Grand Slams. Andre Agassi counts 7 Grand Slams among his 52 singles titles.
     God might also be resented for denying Michael Chang, 30, the longevity granted to erswhile rivals. Like Chang, Sampras was knocked out of the 2002 French Open in the first round but has played well enough in recent months to hold number 23 in ATP rankings. Agassi, now 32, is enjoying a remarkable comeback after a long, humiliating slump, winning the 1999 French and U.S. Opens and the 2000 and 2001 Australian Open, in addition to reaching the Wimbledon finals or semis three years running.
     That's the kind of resurgence boldly predicted in 2000 for Michael by his father Joe Chang, the man who was Michael's first coach. The son failed the father's prophecy. He has not reached even a Grand Slam semi since losing to Patrick Rafter in straight sets at the 97 U.S. Open. The closest Chang came to a second Grand Slam title was losing the 96 U.S. Open final to Sampras, and losing the 1995 French Open final to Thomas Muster -- both in straight sets.
     In fairness let's recall the golden years when Michael Chang exceeded every expectation placed on his young head.
     He was born on February 22, 1972 in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was his brother Carl, three years his elder, who had been earmarked for tennis glory by papa Joe, a research chemist. But by age eight the tagalong kid brother had shown enough promise to be entered in local tournaments. As an eighth grader at Oak Crest Junior High, the 12-year-old Chang took a high school algebra course just so he could qualify for the San Diego high school championships. He won it by beating Carl in the finals. Hailed a prodigy of the SoCal junior circuit, Chang came up time and again against another prodigy from Rancho Palos Verdes named Pete Sampras -- and got the better of him, more times than not.
     Michael had just begun his sophomore year at Valencia High when he made his mark on the international tennis scene. By beating Australian star Paul McNamee in the opening round of the 1987 U.S. Open, he became the youngest man ever to win a match there. It was a remarkable feat. A sport full of tall power players had been set on its ear by a 5-9 boy weighing 139! Four months later Michael, not yet 16, dropped out of high school and his mother Betty dropped out of her career as a biochemist. The decision had been made to turn Michael's tennis career into a family business.
     "Money was the biggest problem," Michael explained. For the two years preceding the decision to turn pro, his parents had depleted their savings at the tune of $40,000-50,000 a year on tournament traveling expenses and lessons from the likes of Australian Phil Dent and Argentinian Jose Higuera. "We're middle class people. It was getting out of hand." If Michael wanted to continue rising in the tennis world, turning pro was the only option.
     Thus was born what the tennis press snidely dubbed "The Chang Gang". Joe was head coach and CEO. Betty was chauffeur, cheerleader and constant companion. Carl, a freshman at Cal and already an ace on its tennis squad, was recruited to serve as his kid brother's hitting partner, assistant coach, and ultimately, coach. At various times Joe Chang retained top pros to polish aspects of Michael's game, but caught flack for being his son's only real coach until giving up the job to Carl.
     But who can question the Chang Gang's success? Between 1989 and 1997, the family business averaged well over a million a year in prize money, not to mention upwards of $8 million a year in endorsements. But by 1998 Michael Chang's career hit a ravine. His winnings totaled under a half million and he failed to get past the early rounds of any Grand Slam event. His only titles were minor events in Boston and Shanghai. The next year he failed to win even a minor. In 2000 he sparked a brief comeback hope by winning the Los Angeles open, but by year end he was written off as a has been.
     His outings since haven't changed that perception, least of all his most recent ones. His 160-pound frame looks more powerful, perhaps, than in his salad days, but it also seems sluggish, tired.
     Michael Chang's phenomenal success in attracting endorsements over the years has depended on his role as the tennis world's Asian standard-bearer. No one is appearing on the horizon to take over that role. Yet, many AA tennis fans find it even sadder to see their old hero repeatedly humiliated in early rounds of minor events.
     Has the time come for Michael Chang to bow out of professional tennis? Or is there a realistic prospect of an Agassi-style comeback?

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(Updated Tuesday, Apr 1, 2008, 06:09:44 PM)

As an avid fan of Michael Chang's for the past 13 years or so -- for various reasons, e.g., about same generation, Chang being an AAM/a good Christian, etc., I have to say, "please give it up, Michael, and go gently into that good night..." It just hurts to watch Chang struggle so mightily and get beat up by no name players -- so convincingly I might add. Well, we don't get to watch Michael whole a lot nowadays because he's usually gone after the 1st round/he's no longer a marquee name among sponsors/fans/media, maybe that's a good thing. I've watched some US Open tennis during these past 2 wks, and I have to be honest; Michael is at best a top 75 player with the kind of game he has now. It'll only get worse as days go by. I mean his game is not gonna drastically change in any forseeable future. Or rather his game already peaked some years ago and had been declining ever since along w/ his body. That's what happenes when you age. He's lost at least a step, maybe two. But more importantly, Michael's game is not just on the par with today's power game.

The current world's #1 player, L. Hewitt's game is very comparable to what Michael had in his prime, but even then Hewitt has a bigger, more powerful 1st serve than Michael ever had. More importantly Hewitt's 2nd serve is significantly less attackable than Michael's weak 2nd serve. IMHO, I believe 2nd serve is more important than the 1st serve, and Michael just severely comes up short in that regard. The opponents just tee up on Michael's 2nd serve which puts even greater pressure on his 1st serve which was never really that good anyway.

Also, Hewitt is a couple inches taller than Michael, has a longer reach, and therefore maybe covers the court/returns the serve a little bit better than how Michael did in his prime. Can you imagine that!? I thought I would never see anyone as quick and nimble as Michael about 10 yrs ago...

Anyway, this Srichaphan guy from Thiland seems like a real deal to me. Although he's not a true AAM, at least he hails from Asia, and I would root for him in the future...

BTW, it was really good to see Sampras win a US Open, Chang's childhood friend/foe...
One Korean Man
   Monday, September 09, 2002 at 02:10:08 (PDT)

If Michael were just a little taller, he could have won more grand slams. His height was the reason he never able to get those titles.
ming chun    Sunday, September 08, 2002 at 19:45:45 (PDT)
A few comments. I think Michael has the head for a comeback, but unless he tries a new coach or gets faster, it's hard to see him come back. His size will be a disadvantage if that strength will only partially compensate for. He should retire on his own terms, though.

By the way, using the term "world-class Jesus freak" is ignorant at best, if not just downright mean. If the author has a problem with his religion (as suggested by the snide "God" comments after it), couldn't you have said something like "a strong believer in Christianity" and left it at that--name calling is at best unprofessional. We can respect different religious views even if we disagree with them--Islam, Hindu, whatever. The class that Michael has shown over the years is far more admirable than the writer's display in this column, and if religion is part of the package, so be it.
   Wednesday, August 21, 2002 at 00:40:18 (PDT)

[Any famous athlete who brings up god or jesus at every opportunity is, by the vernacular, a world-class Jesus freak. "A strong believer in Christianity" is an awkward, stilted phrase that no decent writer would use. Offended by the vernacular? Stay clear of the media. --Ed]
I thought his best chance for another grand-slam was at the 97' U.S. Open. He had clear sailing into the final because all of the other top seeds had been eliminated in earlier rounds. Unfortunately, he ran into a buzzsaw by the name of Rafter in the semi. Michael can play for another 5 years because the sport of tennis is not as brutal as let say boxing or football. On the other hand, all the losses have to be very discouraging and frankly the game has passed him by. Michael seems to have a good head on his shoulder, I'm confident he can excell in the corporate world just as well as the tennis court.
Tay Trai
   Wednesday, July 31, 2002 at 19:31:52 (PDT)