As of the conclusion of the 2018 U.S. Open, it has been exactly 15 years since an American man has lifted a Grand Slam singles trophy. This is a greater timespan of Grand Slam drought than the entire rebirth era of American men’s tennis, which covered the 14 years of 1989 to 2003, and yielded a staggering 27 Slam singles titles for American-born male players. That was the era spearheaded by legendary names such as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, a time when U.S. players often found themselves in Slam finals against their fellow American peers. Take the classic 1991 French Open final, won by Jim Courier over Andre Agassi in 5 brutal sets. Or the 1995 Australian and U.S. Open finals, where Agassi and Sampras squared off – contests which didn’t only decide Slams, but the world’s number 1 ranking as well.
Of course, all eras have to have a genesis. And all eras have to have someone who shows their fellow countrymen what’s possible, a person who lights the way. As the 1980s drew to a close, U.S. tennis had no guarantee that future dominance – or even success – was assured. The previous great American era of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors was largely over (McEnroe won his final Grand Slam singles trophy in 1984, Connors in 1983 – both ironically bidding farewell to the Slam winner’s circle at the U.S. Open). And while there were bright prospects on the horizon, in tennis – as in life – early promise is no guarantee of future accomplishment.
Enter Michael Te-Pei Chang. Not only the youngest American male player to ever lift a Grand Slam trophy, Chang is indeed the youngest men’s player period to ever do so – at the staggering age of only 17 years, 110 days. It is of course his youthful age that first stands out when discussing his greatest triumph – and even moreso in this modern era where the world’s number 2 player, Roger Federer, is over 37 years old. Yet the win was also notable for many other reasons. It snapped a 34 year drought by American men on the red clay of Roland Garros, and planted the seeds for U.S. men to take up the challenge of rising to the top. Another American great of that era – Jim Courier – once said that Chang’s win instilled the belief among the U.S. contingent that Grand Slam success was indeed possible for them, American-born men that had grown up playing against one another. As Courier put it, “We recognised very quickly after Michael won that it was not an insurmountable task. Something that seemed so far away was right in front of you at that point”.
Michael Chang, standing at 1.75 metres tall and with a relatively slight build, employed a defensive style of tennis modeled around speed and anticipation. In fact, everything about Chang and his tennis progress was accelerated. At the age of only 15, Chang was already ranked an incredible 163 in the world. A prodigy in every sense of the word, Chang set an entire host of youth records, winning the United States Tennis Association’s Boy’s 18s Nationals while 15 years old, becoming the youngest male player to ever win a U.S. Open main draw match, also at only 15, and winning his first pro-level singles title at the callow age of 16 years, 7 months in San Francisco in 1988.
These are all incredible early achievements, worthy of a place in tennis lore. However, the ultimate benchmarks for tennis players are the Grand Slams. These 4 tournaments carry the highest prestige and history, and being triumphant at them is rightfully regarded as the greatest accomplishment in the sport. As the 1989 season dawned, the established order was about to receive an almighty shakeup, even if it all started predictably enough with Ivan Lendl, the world number 2, claiming the year’s opening Grand Slam at the Australian Open. As the French Open rolled around in May, few people would have picked Chang to lift the trophy. It wasn’t only his age that caused most to overlook him, but the fact that the favourite for the title, world number 1, top seed and winner of 3 of the last 5 French Opens – Ivan Lendl – was revealed to be a potential opponent of Chang’s in the 4th round, should Chang survive that far. And survive he did, in fact dispatching future great Pete Sampras in the 2nd round with ease, as he advanced to a fateful showdown with the world’s best player.
There was another momentous backdrop to this 4th round confrontation – an event which was playing out at the same time thousands of kilometers away in China, Chang’s ancestral homeland. That spring a political protest, a 7-week government defiance, met a brutal end on Sunday June the 4th in Tiananmen Square as government tanks rolled in and crushed the dissent. As Chang would go on to recount, it made fighting to win a tennis match “seem like peanuts”, as he made it his goal to “put a few smiles on the faces of Chinese people around the world” following the deadly crackdown.
But if anyone was smiling as the 4th round encounter between Chang and Lendl began to unfold, it was Lendl. Taking the first two sets with relative ease, 6-4 6-4, Lendl ominously opened the 3rd set by breaking Chang’s serve. But Chang, galvanised by the Chinese events, rallied to break back immediately and win that set 6-3, and then squared the match when he won the 4th set by the identical score. Looking back, it is at this point where his 1989 French Open triumph began its transcendence from a championship win to the stuff of fable. Suffering serious leg cramps while up 2 games to 1 in the 5th set, Chang briefly considered quitting. Quickly, however, he scotched that idea, downing water and bananas in a desperate bid to stay hydrated, and refusing to sit between game breaks lest his cramps not allow him to stand again. Soon to follow was a moment forever enshrined in Grand Slam folklore. With his pain so severe he would scream in agony while just stretching for his shots, Chang’s will to win saw him apply a tactic he would never again repeat in his career, but which encapsulated his determination to perfection. Serving at 4 games to 3, but down 15-30, Chang threw in a quick underhand-motion serve. Lendl, at this stage frazzled that the match had not yet concluded in his favour, smacked the ball back and charged into the net, only to end up losing the point as a Chang passing shot clipped the tape and drew a Lendl error. After surviving that moment and going up 5-3, Chang was only one final game away from a victory for the ages. A match of this magnitude and drama, though, still had one last twist left. As Lendl quickly slumped to 15-40, 2 match points down, Chang moved intimidatingly close to the service line to receive a Lendl 2nd serve. This final act of defiance drew a Lendl double fault, and Chang collapsed to the red clay in exhaustion and disbelief at the upset he had orchestrated over 4 hours and 37 minutes of incredible thrills.
But there was still a tournament to be won. Chang had performed the equivalent of a tennis miracle, and indeed many players, especially younger players, would have been more than happy to take that win and be content with their tournament showing. Even Lendl himself, years later, commented that “Lots of times a lesser player could beat me and not back it up. You’d have to say that he was a lesser player then, but Michael backed it up”. And how. Chang would sweep his quarter and semi-final opponents in 4 sets, booking a final day meeting with number 3 seed Stefan Edberg, himself having carved his way to his first French Open final with scintillating play, dispatching number 2 seed Boris Becker in the semis over 5 riveting sets. Could Michael Chang dig deep one last time and seal a win for the ages? It started well enough for Chang, who swept through the 1st set 6-1. But Edberg rallied to take the next 2 sets, and would hold no less than 9 break points in the 4th set. But Chang – and history – would not be denied, as he continued to draw on his indomitable spirit by taking the 4th stanza by the metric of 6 games to 4. Into the 5th and deciding set for the French national championship, Edberg succeeded in breaking the Chang serve early on, but was eventually worn down by his opponent’s doggedness, losing 6-2. With the final scoreline reading 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, Chang was now the youngest ever men’s Grand Slam champion in history – an achievement which, with every passing year, seems unlikely to ever be displaced.
Michael Chang would go on to play another 3 Grand Slam finals in his career – another French Open final in 1995, and one final each at the 1996 Australian and U.S. Opens. While he never added another major to his lone Grand Slam triumph, his career was a wildly bountiful one, collecting 34 professional singles titles in total, and reaching a high of world number 2.
Yet for all of his personal triumphs and records, it is always important to remember how the greatest era in American men’s tennis history was kickstarted by a boy who was not quite yet fully grown, who in spite of his young age became a trailblazer for his country’s golden tennis generation. Chang showed the likes of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and others that they need not wait for success, that they could take on the world’s best and become that themselves – now. The year following his historic French win, Sampras triumphed at the US Open, followed by Courier lifting the French crown himself in 1991, and Agassi conquering Wimbledon in 1992. And so while Chang may have fallen just short of reaching the world’s top ranking in tennis, he will always remain the first of his compatriots to have planted a flag on the Grand Slam summit.