Chang bids adieu to tennis career
By Greg Garber
PARIS -- It's not even 10:30 on Friday morning and Michael Chang has already sweated entirely through his white shirt.
He works the baseline here in practice on Court 1 at Roland Garros, hitting opposite Yevgeny Kafelnikov, emitting soft grunts -- oooh, uhhh ... oooh, uhhh ... -- as he slides from side to side. Kafelnikov rips a forehand that may or may not have clipped the line and Chang wanders over to inspect the mark. He squints, then sighs and walks back to the baseline. Indeed, it hit the line.
This, it seems, is Michael Chang's life these days. Even Tripp Phillips -- a young American who beat him in a Challenger a few weeks ago -- got more than his share of the breaks. Against, Kafelnikov, Chang comes up consistently short: He mis-hits a cross-court forehand that nearly sails into the empty seats, he can't reach a backhand down the line, he applauds a bomb of a first serve down the middle. Too good.
For Chang, 31, it is too bad. Fourteen years ago here at Roland Garros, he was incandescent. He created his own breaks. He ran down every ball. He won the French Open at the age of 17, announcing the next generation of American male tennis players. It was so easy for him then. Now? He is a museum piece, playing out his final matches in the last season of his career, soaking up the rousing applause he deserves. His week is front-loaded with all kinds of appearances designed to honor him.
His peers appreciate his contributions to tennis, his unerring consistency and quality of effort. After 55 minutes of hitting, Kafelnikov wins the final point and races straight at Chang. He lunges over the net and clears it -- barely -- then shakes Chang's hand.
Andre Agassi, sitting in the first row of seats, waiting for his practice time, laughs at Kafelnikov's style -- or lack of it.
"That was a near miss," Agassi yells to the players as they come off the court.
Later, when Chang is stretching his aging legs, Agassi sets down his racket bag and asks, "How are you?"
Chang nods. "Congratulations on number two coming," Chang says, referring to the news that Agassi's wife, Steffi Graf, is expecting a second child.
Agassi thanks him and says he's a little disappointed that Graf will not be playing mixed doubles with him at the French Open.
"It's amazing the lengths she'll go to avoid playing," Agassi says.
And both athletes, members of the sweet, select group that has won a Grand Slam singles title, break into laughter. Smiling, they catch each other's eye. They nod. Here on the red clay, under a warm sun, it is a moment sublime.
It is a snapshot we will never see again.
In the beginning
When Chang -- a searingly swift, 5-foot-9, 160-pound baselining backboard -- won the French Open in 1989, he was the first of America's best and brightest tennis generation to break through. At 17 years, 3 months, he was the youngest men's Grand Slam singles champion ever, before or since.
"I think when Michael won the French Open it was a wake-up call," Courier said recently. "It was like, 'Hey, if he can do it, I can do it.' "
Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, believes Chang had a profound effect on all three future champions.
"In a lot of ways he pushed Courier, Sampras and Agassi to reach their potential," McEnroe said. "They're like, 'This little guy with no serve -- how does he win the French Open?'
"Michael squeezed every ounce out of his talent. In a way it proved to them how far you could go. They got better."
Fifteen months after Chang dispatched Stefan Edberg in a five-set thriller at Roland Garros, Sampras, barely 19, became the youngest champion ever at the U.S. Open. Courier was 20 when he won the 1991 French Open and Agassi was 22 when he took Wimbledon in 1992. And while Chang's peers went on to repeat their championship feats many times, the 1989 French Open was his one and only Grand Slam title.
Together, however, Chang (1), Sampras (14), Agassi (8) and Courier (4) have combined to win 27 Grand Slam singles titles -- second only to the 31 Slams collected by the Australian triumvirate of Roy Emerson (12), Rod Laver (11) and Ken Rosewall (8) between 1953 and 1972.
"We've been able to inspire each other, and help each other play better tennis," Chang said earlier this year. "When we play each other, there's an added adrenaline, and added focus, an added atmosphere from the people. We bring out the best in each other, in many ways.
"It's been great to have those rivalries throughout the juniors, the pros. To be able to go to each other now and look in each others eyes and say, 'It's been a lot of fun,' is really special."
And now, as the 2003 French Open is set to begin, Sampras is home in Los Angeles, "95 percent" sure he is retired. Courier left the game after 1999. Agassi, at 33, briefly took over as the game's top-ranked player recently. Chang, currently ranked No. 144 among ATP players, accepted a wild-card entry into the tournament. It will be his 16th and final French Open, for at 31 he has said he will retire after the U.S. Open.
"In all honesty, I feel like the grind of the tour has taken its toll," Chang said. "It's frustrating to be out there and not be able to play at the same level that I would like. I want to go out and play the tournaments that have meant a lot to me, the ones I want to play.
"I definitely want to go out and give it one last push, hopefully finish on a high note, finish on a climax and be able to walk away from the tour regret-free and feel like it was an incredible experience in my life and something I'll never forget."
It is fitting that Chang and Agassi already have met twice this year. Agassi defeated Chang 6-4, 6-2 in San Jose in February in a first-round match. Five weeks later, it was the same result in the second round at the Tennis Masters Series-Miami.
"Not just in tennis, but in all of sports, he's as great a competitor as you'll ever see," Agassi said. "He has never once not shown up with everything he's had."
All good things ...
Chang's modus operandi was one of relentless retrieval. He was faster and mentally tougher than virtually anyone on tour. Eventually, that back-and-forth style -- and all the extra miles he put on those exceptional legs -- began to manifest itself in his game. As his speed diminished so, too, did his confidence.
He slid to No. 94 in 2001, losing more matches than he won (16-21) for the first time in his career. Last year brought a 7-18 record and, for the first time, back-to-back seasons without a tournament title. The man who has won more than $19 million in prize money has a 1-5 record this year and only $26,860 in winnings.
A week ago, the top-seeded Chang found himself playing Phillips in Forest Hills, N.Y. -- and losing in three sets.
"It was a slow realization," Chang said in January. "I'm not one to make a judgment on the spur of the moment. I take time to digest and assess things. I would never make a decision like this without giving it much thought.
"I think having had some tough times over the last few years, I take them more in stride and try to concentrate more on the positive than the negative." Larger than life
Let the record show that, for a few years anyway, Michael Chang was taller than Pete Sampras.
"I was," Chang said, laughing, "and I'm proud of that."
And, at least, for a while, Chang's game was bigger, too.
"I beat Pete probably 90 percent of the time in the first few years we were on tour," Chang said. "I won the first five or six times. It wasn't until he won the U.S. Open in 1990 that he really started to beat me."
He always was precocious on the tennis court. When Chang defeated Paul McNamee in the first round of the 1987 U.S. Open, he became the youngest man (15 years, 6 months) to win a main draw match. A month later, he reached the semifinals in Scottsdale, another first. In 1988, he won his first major professional title, in San Francisco, over Johan Kriek.
His victory at Roland Garros was a bolt of lightning. Ivan Lendl, the world's No. 1 player, was Chang's victim in the round of 16. Lendl won the first two sets, but with cramps setting in Chang crept back into the match. With Lendl at times serving underhand, Chang won the last three sets by identical 6-3 scores, and in four hours and 37 minutes. His victory over Edberg in the final was the first by an American since Tony Trabert 34 years earlier.
"When Michael won the French Open in 1989, I was a college student worried about my sophomore finals, just trying to stay eligible [at Northwestern]," said Todd Martin, who is one year older than Chang. "You couldn't help but be dumb-founded by that size-challenged guy. To win the toughest of the Slams, to win at that age, it was amazing."
Ask Chang about his favorite memories in the game and he begins with Roland Garros.
"It was pretty fun to have the ride at the '89 French," he said. "To finally win in Memphis  was great, to be able to get a hug from a little girl, a cancer survivor, was wonderful. To win Indian Wells and Key Biscayne back to back [in 1992] was great. To be able to win in Beijing three times in a row [1993-95] was great, to have all those people behind me."
Chang, an Asian-American, was enormously popular on the Asian circuit, where he won 19 tournaments in places like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Jakarta. He always has been the model of decorum and sincerity -- words that don't always describe the professional athlete.
According to Chang, the competition among the Americans sometimes congealed into friction.
"The roughest times between the four of us were when all four of us were at the top, when we were excelling at our games," Chang said. "When you looked at the draw, you'd be trying to figure out where Andre, Pete and Jim are, where you're going to play in the quarterfinals, semifinals or final."
One time, Courier and Chang were hitting on a practice court and Courier asked if he wanted to play a set.
"Let's just hit and play some points," Chang answered.
"To be honest," Chang explained, "I already knew he was in my section [of the draw], and I knew before we even played our first-round matches, that for sure we were going to play in the quarterfinals. I didn't want to give him any hints, of how well I was playing that week, what my weaknesses were then.
"So the times when we were on the top was when we were furthest apart. Now, at the end of our careers, we've come to appreciate each other more and come to greet each other with a little more warmth, a little more encouragement, a little more love. It's definitely a cycle."
The cycle, despite Agassi's status as a French Open favorite, is nearly over.
Sampras won a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, Agassi has a chance to add to his total of eight and Courier managed four Slams in a narrow window of eight events over three seasons. All three athletes rose to the No. 1 ranking in the world. The best Chang did was No. 2, after he was runner-up to Sampras in the 1996 U.S. Open.
The world always has seen Chang as a classic overachiever. In his mind, at least, was he an underachiever?
"I don't think so," Chang said evenly. "It's difficult to say. I mean, if I go out and try to compare myself to those three it would be easy to say I didn't achieve as much as I could have. But as long as I know in my heart that I gave it my all, I'm content with that.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't able to win another one outside of that French. I try not to compare myself in that aspect, but I definitely feel like those three players are definitely exceptional people and exceptional tennis players.
"It's great to be able to see them accomplish so much, knowing that you grew up with them."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.comSend this story to a friend | Most sent stories