Tennis, in more ways than one, is akin to formulation: of what to do, how, when, and where. Agreed that anybody can hit forehands, backhands, serves, and volleys; but, for the best, and the gifted, tennis is a game of intelligence – a sport that is not only played with a ball and a racquet, but between one’s two ears as well. Your own. Nothing illustrates this paradigm better than Michael Chang’s most famous triumph at the French Open, over twenty-five years ago: his first, and only, Grand Slam title, ever.
Chang, at age 17, produced what would be tantamount to ‘smart tennis’ – or, Spinoza’s cause-and-effect.
The magical moment came in the fourth round of the tournament.Â In the decisive fifth set. Chang stood at the baseline, looked across the net, and for the first time, in his career, flicked an underhand serve, at Ivan Lendl. The seasoned Lendl was completely flummoxed. He lost the point, the game, and the match. It was incredible stuff. As a fellow pro put it,Â “Chang was so poised that he had time to think of hitting an underhand serve – something that would blow the [other] guy’s mind away.” Chang was calm, too: a picture of mental composure, emotional intelligence and/or ‘quotient.’
Fast-forward: the Australian Open, and Wimbledon, 1997, and beyond. Chang, after a great run, in the former, was destroyed, with contempt, by Carlos Moya – then a twenty-year-old unseeded player from Spain. Chang’s big hitting was reduced to naught, thanks to the conditions prevailing at Flinders Park, not to speak of the ‘soft’ balls that were put to use. Chang’s defeat was unbelievable. He could not surmount one major handicap. He’s, quite simply, unprepared to playing an unknown, yet powerful, player, who’s younger than he, on an important occasion. Add to that, another visage: Chang had always been up against older players, ever since he himself was a teenage phenomenon. The equation was transparent.Â What if he lost? He did a favour. He elevated Moya’s rating to a new level. For tennis to conjure up some wonderful images: of the shape of things to come. Ditto for his sensational match against Marcelo Rios, at the US Open, which Chang won. The feat was tantamount to winning the final itself. Next? 1998 was, again, an action ‘reâ€‘play’ for Chang – the difference being of degree.
Wimbledon had always been a big disappointment. Chang never did really well in the world’s most hallowed tournament. Not many had ever given him that big chance of winning the championship.Â Yet, Chang may have learnt a handful of good lessons, thanks to a sad run. Because, he’s an intelligent player?Â You bet. Tennis intelligence is not just a thinking process. It encompasses what Billie Jean King once called ‘the athletic quotient.’ Something that makes a champion champion by taking in information, sizing it up, and getting to the hub of the issue, post-haste.
This shouldn’t, of course, take more than 4/100th of a second. Too tall an order, because not everybody is Boris Becker. Becker, for instance, never out-thought his opponents a la Pete Sampras. He’s the ultimate in outblasting them. Add to that a set of master keys, and you have a dramatic alchemy. If one master key doesn’t work, a gifted tennis player, like Becker, will try another: to unlocking the opponent’s game. Chang had that gift, or potential, and he’s irrevocably devoted to becoming a much, much better tennis player – a true champion. You may not believe it, and not give him the marks. That’s okay.
For a man who figured in one of the longest matches ever played during a Grand Slam tournament – US Open 1992, against Stefan Edberg: 5 hours, 26 minutes – Chang used to be more self-assured when he’s stationed inside the service line, than the net, early on in his career. Thereafter, no area or part of the court was shaded with doubts or insecurities. It’s a change that enabled him to convert certain shots. Chang got into the net, knocked off some volleys, and shortened some points. More than that, Chang had a much bigger serve towards the end of his career than he had ever before. His second serve was also getting better and better all the time.
What’s more, he’d added a steely edge to that polite exterior too: a profound pointer. In his own words: “‘I’ll give you absolutely nothing. You must beat me, because I’ll never beat myself.” If Chang’s return of serve had always been one of his primal assets, his extraordinary hand-eye co-ordination was no less impeccable. He could, therefore, with ready effect, counter-attack. It’s a big bonus: a bonus he gained when he trained with Phil Dent. As Dent once observed:Â ‘Michael does not guess at the net… That made a big difference for him. He’s also a rarity. Most guys always look for a way to lose, while Chang always looked for a way to win. That’s one of the things that separated him from the others.’
Chang’s been deeply touched by the Bible. He’s baptised in 1988. A few months later, he won the French Open. And, his life changed forever.Â He believed that his spiritual relationship with Christ was the reason behind his success. Wrote John Feinstein in his fine book, Hard Courts: “A lot of people were offended by this, especially when Chang brought it up during the awards ceremony. He was whistled at by many in the crowd… Now, Chang rarely talks about his religion.” That’s not all. When Chang was injured inside the hip, in December 1989, many thought that he could never be the same, quick-footed, player again. Worse still, some wrote him off – a has-been. One exception was Becker. Feinstein quotes him: “This guy [Chang] is very special. He’s going to come back, and he’s going to win a lot of tennis matches. I don’t have any doubt of that.”
Chang was a great practitioner of tennis acumen. When stretched out far behind the baseline, for instance, he hit the high, deep defensive shot to neutralise the point. And, when he’d more arsenal and power in his game, he was eagerly awaiting greater challenges. In his own words: “I’m excited because what I was doing added a new dimension to my game. I’d had good results against the top players with the style. What would be really nice would be to have consistent results against them by playing a more offensive game. I want my opponents to always be guessing and thinking what I might do next.’
It wasn’t easy, though. The game was a-changin’, and Chang was also philosophical about it. He once said:Â “I’m hopeful that mine will be a change for the good, too.”Â And, why not? Because, Chang, the little, big man of tennis, had just about everything – including Oriental wristiness. He stands 5 feet 8 inches tall a la cricket legend Brian Lara. What a simile. Chang, therefore, had to look up to meet his opponent eye-to-eye. No problem. For the simple reason, Chang did not buy the idea that bigger, taller, players had the advantage – they can cover more court and hit the ball much harder. As a matter of fact, Chang was one of the fastest players on the tour. He was adept at covering the court as well as any tall player.
“A good serve,” Chang often said, “has to do with a lot more than height.Â It’s also timing, rhythm, and consistency. Big players are often little slower and have a hard time getting down for low shots.” He added: “With a variety of shots, I often moved them from side to side on the baseline, and made them stretch low or wide when they were at the net.”Â Result? TouchÃ©! Being tall isn’t all what it’s so focused, or cracked up, to be. Chang knew it only too well. He was also cognisant that his best was yet to come. It never did.
However, you’ll agree, that, it’s all a question of ability and talent – of staying cool. Chang had them in abundance. And, winning, after all, feels great either way – whether you are tall or short. Yet, with his happy return to a healthy mindset, Chang was still far from proving his detractors, who often called him the bridesmaid, not bride, wrong. He did seem to have found the art, touch, of winning with his mind, not height, at one point of time, all right. But, that’s not enough. He’d to win titles. Thia was not always his own idea of judgment. Call it [un]fuzzy logic, or what you may, Chang got more to his game than on-court pumped-up fervour, common to most ‘big’ players. What he’d to do was keep himself focused and corner more glories – if that’s possible, and before time ran out for him. Ultimately, time did, sadly, run out for him.
“Chang,” as tennis analyst Joel Drucker once wrote, “maybe nearing the end of the road in his returnÂâ€‘trip quest for Grand Slam glory, but he’s certainly brought out the best in others along the way.” He quotes Chang: “My strength has always been the ability to persevere. Absolutely. I’ve my best tennis ahead of me.”
Chang, Drucker believed, had cherished the journey, and also the faith that brought him so close to tennis summit, thanks to his closeâ€‘knit family, with brother Carl, for instance, playing ‘semi-father.’ Add to that Chang’s confidence in himself – and, he’s been a credit to the game. But, winning a second Grand Slam, for Chang, never happened. It called for more ammo, greater wheels, greater staying power, greater balance, and greater tenacity, than just his spirited mindset alone.
So, there it goes. Rolland Garros 1989 was to Chang what the falling apple was to Newton. He never won another Grand Slam title, all right. But, he’s only pragmatic. A man, who believed in that good, old maxim: aggression was the best form of defence against great, thunderbolt players, and the new, young brigade of exciting players. Yet, what’s most significant for Chang was – he’s role model, win or lose, notwithstanding the fact that he once used a ‘high-tech’ racquet, which was declared unlawful. More importantly, Chang exemplified, through his electrifying game, his own brand of tennis – a beam of light, which he lit with his own fertile mind and an unflinching desire to compete.
Tennis desperately needed Chang to win his second Grand Slam title, at Paris. It never happened. That was one of the gloomiest chapters of tennis history. Hence, the need to attach a fable to it – that the genii can fail to deliverâ€¦ when it matters most. This was also Chang’s thematic song of his own burden, or ‘load’ – the ‘weight’ of a ‘flawed’ genius.