Michael Chang backed up his world class ambitions with guts, tenacity and deep faith.
by William Nakayama
o tennis fans everywhere Michael Chang embodies guts and determination. That's even before Chang co-wrote Holding Serve: Persevering On and Off the Court (2002). His comeback win over Ivan Lendl from two sets down in the fourth round at Roland Garros in 1989 is a classic, especially his iconic fifth set surprise underhand serve. That year Chang went on to become the youngest man ever to win the French Open and the first American male to win in 36 years.
Chang persevered until the end. He didn't retire until 2003, a few weeks after he quietly exited Roland Garros after blowing a two-set-to-love lead in a first-round match with an obscure Frenchman ranked 224th. By then Chang had ceased being a marquee name except in cities like Hong Kong, Beijing and Taipei. His ATP ranking had slipped to 116th from 73rd at the end of 2001. A player who had won $2 million in prize money in 1995 and attained No. 2 in the world in 1996 had been reduced to spending half his time competing on the Challengers circuit. One of his biggest wins of the year was $7,200 in Calabasas. A week later he netted $520 in Tarzana.
Not that Chang needed the prize money to keep himself in tennis balls. Since turning pro at the remarkable early age of 15 his winnings surpassed $19 million, not counting the estimated $50 million in endorsements.
It wasn't money that kept Michael Chang in pro tennis. It was God. Or rather, the deep conviction that he had been blessed with his once-unparalleled quickness and killer groundstrokes so that he could serve Jesus.
"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 didn't see 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 won 34 career titles but his only Grand Slam title was the 1989 French Open at the record age of 17 years and 3 months. By contrast his lifelong tennis nemesis Pete Sampras owns 67 titles, 14 of which are Grand Slams. Andre Agassi counts 9 Grand Slams among his 58 singles titles.
God might also be resented for denying Michael Chang, who was 31 at retirement, the longevity granted to erstwhile rivals. Like Chang Sampras was knocked out of the 2002 French Open in the first round but had played well enough to hold number 23 in ATP rankings. Agassi, then 32, was 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 prophecy failed to materialize. Michael didn't reach a Grand Slam semi after 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.
That long goodbye won't make fans forget how 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 to 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.
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.
Two more years on the Tour didn't change that perception. His 160-pound frame looked more powerful than in his phenom days, but it also seemed a bit sluggish.
Michael Chang's phenomenal success in attracting endorsements over the years depended to a large extent on his role as the tennis world's Asian standard-bearer. The fact that no one appeared on the horizon to take over that role may have prolonged Chang's departure.
Michael Chang's achievements have been amply recognized. In 2001 he was retained as a goodwill ambassador for the 2008 Beijing Olympic bid committee. He was unsuccessful in offering his help to the Chinese national tennis team, but did coach Peng Shuai, one of China's top female tennis players until parting ways in late 2007. On January 23, 2008 Chang was elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Chang is a serious fisherman who takes side trips to go fishing during his travels. His other hobby is breeding African cichlids in several large freshwater aquariums at his Mercer Island, Washington home. He also spent some time attending Southern California's Biola University. As an amateur golfer, Chang has a reputation for his powerful drive. In a 2005 celebrity tournament he hit one that sailed 392-yards.
Michael Chang poses for photographers with his father Joe Chang after beating Nicolas Kiefer of Germany 6-2, 6-2, at the Nasdaq-100 Open Thursday night, March 20, 2003. in Key Biscayne, Fla. Chang retired a few weeks later.
(AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
“Since turning pro at the remarkable early age of 15 his winnings surpassed $19 million, not counting the estimated $50 million in endorsements. ”