We’re joined on our latest installment of “Down The T” by Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion, and winner of multiple singles titles on the men’s tour. A big thank you to Rebecca Brown of the Chang Family Foundation for helping to facilitate the interview.
Owen (Tennis Frontier): Michael, Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by the Tennis Frontier. We really appreciate you taking the time out. I took the opportunity to ask members of our online tennis community if they would like to contribute some questions and we had a big response. I narrowed it down to ten, as I know your time is valuable!
Q1. You rose through the ranks alongside a particularly strong peer group of American tennis players including Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier.
In his autobiography, Sampras identified you as his personal measuring stick for his progress and level of play. How did you look upon the other members of your peer group and who (if anyone) did you compare your progress with when coming through the junior ranks and moving into the pros? (A Question from Britbox)
I think the reason Pete said that was because I had a very good record against him in our latter junior years, as well as the first couple of years playing him as pros. My results were pretty high up there during that time and we obviously competed against each other a lot.
As far as my peers, I can’t say I really compared myself to anybody just because everyone was in the same boat and no one player really accomplished any real breakthroughs until Andre’s year in 1988 and my French Open win in 1989.
Q2. You were the “youngest-ever” to do a lot of things in your career, most notably, win a Major. What do you think the unique pressures are to winning things at such a young age? (A Question from Moxie629)
I actually don’t think there are too many pressures at that young of an age if they are playing professional. No one expects anything and the only pressures might be coming from sponsors or media hype.
For me, I really didn’t feel pressure until after winning the French Open because who would really expect a 17 year old to win on the ATP Tour, much less a Grand Slam?!
Q3. Why do you think the transition from juniors to pros is taking much longer in the current era, and do you think we’ll see teenage Major winners again? (A Combined Question from Didi, Moxie629)
I think the transition is much more difficult today because tennis is a lot more physical. Guys are hitting harder and playing more physically demanding tennis. On top of that, the technology of the current rackets and strings allow players to generate so much more spin and power.
It’s tough for a teenager to compete with that now from a strength perspective. Obviously, it can still be done but it’s certainly much more difficult.
Q4. Winning the French Open Final against Stefan Edberg was a stunning breakthrough. Tell us a little bit more about the day – your ritual before and after the match, and how you felt as the match unfolded. (A Question from britbox)
I didn’t change anything before the final at Roland Garros. The only thing I made sure of was to hydrate a bit more because I had serious cramping issues in two prior matches. It was a warm day on that final so hydration was important, especially as it ended up being another five-setter.
Q5. The match with Lendl at Roland Garros earlier in the tournament has been described as one of the most memorable in tennis history. The underarm serve, moving up to the service box to receive, and the various strategies to unsettle Ivan, while at the same time dealing with cramps. Did you decide on the tactics beforehand or during the match, and have you ever discussed the match with Lendl since? (A Combined Question from 1972Murat, Jesse Pentecost, JLLB)
I have never discussed the match with Ivan although I have talked to him about many other things since. I don’t plan on bringing it up with him either!
The underhand serve was never planned (not sure how you could plan that actually) and in fact, the thought to do it only occurred moments prior to me hitting it.
Q6. You were on the tour at the same time as some great players – Sampras, Courier, Agassi, Edberg, Becker, Lendl, just to name a few.. Who did you enjoy playing the most and which players were you “friendliest” on a social level with during your career? (A Question from Denisovich)
I enjoyed playing against all those players through the years. I have beaten them all but I have lost to every one, too!
To know that I played against so many tennis great through my career was pretty exciting though. It didn’t make it easier to win titles but it was fun and exciting!
If you think about it, how many players get to compete against so many Hall of Famers in one span of a career. And that is still not including McEnroe, Connors, and Federer.
Q7. One of our contributing writers, Scoop Malinowski, is currently penning a book on Lleyton Hewitt. How did you find playing Lleyton? And what was your most memorable match or anecdote? (A Question from Scoop)
I only played Lleyton twice in my career and unfortunately, it was toward the end of my career.
He is a great champion and certainly one of the toughest competitors out there. He has a great game but we all know he’s won even more matches because of his tenacity.
Q8. Do you think the physicality of the modern game poses a disadvantage to smaller players such as Kei Nishikori? This question is really twofold: How do you think you’d have adapted your game in the current era, and what kind of advice would you give Kei? (A Combined Question from Broken Shoelace, Masterclass)
I would never say a smaller player has a disadvantage in tennis.
They may not be able to hit as hard or serve as big but tennis is not all about that. Being one of the smaller players on tour, there are always ways to beat the bigger players and being smaller and quicker has its advantages. I do think a smaller player does need to be able to play different styles, though, because it keeps bigger players off balance and guessing.
I do believe I could have adapted to this current era as well just because the same questions were asked of me when I first played on tour. I would get plenty of comments like, he’s too small, his serve isn’t big enough, he doesn’t have enough weapons, etc.
You believe what you want to believe but for me, I know where my strength is, and I would never listen to what other people think I can or can not do. If I did that, I never would have even turned pro.
Q9. There has been plenty of discussion about the homogenization of surfaces, strings, racquet technology in the current era. What do you like and dislike about today’s game? What kind of changes would you make, if any? (A Combined Question from Arienna Lee, Front242, Riotbeard, Denisovich, Moxie629)
Homogenization will never truly happen.
The simple reason is because there are way too many differing factors in different places where pros play around the world. They tried to do that with something as simple as balls being played each week and it couldn’t be done.
Weather conditions, altitude, humidity already make each city different in playing conditions. I think it’s exciting and fun that players play with different equipment, and surfaces are changing during the seasons. Everyone is unique and special and that should be celebrated!
Q10. Of the players in the current era, who do you particularly like watching and why? (A Question from Denisovich)
It’s fun watching the top players like Rafa and Novak go at it but also, it’s great watching the players in general, playing at their best.
I would hope a few more Asian players would succeed and do well, though, especially on the men’s side. I think that would be great for tennis and for the growth of tennis in Asia.
Finally, please tell us about your Foundation work in recent years, integrating tennis, family, and faith, and the meaning this has brought to your own life. (A Question from Masterclass)
The Chang Family Foundation has been a wonderful way to not only give back to the community but also to share the Gospel message through sports like tennis, basketball, and volleyball.
It has been very rewarding and we have the opportunity to touch many lives along the way! When you think about sports, its real purpose is to bring people together, and through various events and leagues, we can use those opportunities to encourage others in life while sharing the love of Christ. To do both of those things through sports, particularly tennis, is satisfying knowing that you’re touching hearts and making a difference. That’s what our Foundation is all about.
Find out more about the Chang Family Foundation at mchang.com
Cover Photo: maartmeister, Creative Commons License