Rewind 1989: Rejuvenated American Tennis Finally Embraces the Dirt

Rajat JainSenior Analyst IMay 23, 2009

If American Tennis ever opens its history book to find a fairytale story for its young tennis aspirants, it will probably stop at Paragraph 2 of Page 1989; when Michael Chang became the youngest men’s tennis player to conquer Roland Garros and create it in the first place!


A long American slump

The astonishing run of Michael Chang was a welcome respite at a time when the world’s most powerful nation was unable to cast its spell on the tennis world.

Jimmy Connors, the American hero and winner of eight grand slams, although still fighting hard, was no longer a threat to the youth. John McEnroe, on the other hand, was being overpowered by the likes of Lendl, Becker  and Edberg and struggling in his celebrity marriage with Tatum O’Neal, unable to fully devote to tennis.

As a result, Americans were yet to rejoice on a Grand Slam success since McEnroe’s annihilation of Lendl in the US Open ’84. The European clay was still a dark curse for these fast hard court-loving players as no American had won a French Open in the Open Era, and the last one to successfully solve the clay mystery was Tony Trabert in ’55.

Bud Collins, the famous broadcaster and a tennis author, famously called the Parisian Center Court “The American Graveyard,” as he had counted as many as 494 martyrs buried under this hostile soil since the championship of ’55.

During this never-ending slump, promising young American players were hogging the limelight: Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang. Agassi had shown the way by going deep into the semis of the French Open and the US Open in ’88, and Chang was busy setting “youngest-ever records one after the other.

It seemed like a matter of time before somebody would break through with a major.


A giant killer

Chang began his journey at the ’89 French Open in emphatic fashion by serving three nice breadsticks (6-1, 6-1, 6-1) to his compatriot Sampras in the second round, and followed it up with a hot bagel to a qualifier in the third.

Even though he was in good form, the fourth round match was considered analogous to a poor lamb left on his own to be slaughtered by an unforgiving butcher. The 17-year-old short and gangly kid was opposite a monster of the game popularly known as “Ivan the Terrible,” who had bludgeoned through the first three rounds without breaking a sweat.

The signs were ominous, as Lendl overpowered Chang to threaten an early finish with two sets and a break in the third. Chang somehow managed to regroup himself and break the then-world No. 1 to claim the third set.

The penultimate set saw Chang gave one of the most determined performances in sporting history. At 4-3, the American was afflicted by the heat, and suffered from painful cramps, barely finding any energy for serves, and hardly able to move.

Chang almost thought of surrendering the match, but backed away at the last moment. He, apparently, had found a novel way to tackle the Czech. He attacked Lendl’s serve by standing five feet inside the baseline, and started throwing moonballs to hide his weak serve.

One could almost pity the guy as he shrieked in pain during rallies, shook his wrists vigorously in between points, and remained standing during changeovers for the fear of spreading the pain.

Lendl was clearly unsettled by the tactics and lost the fourth set, but the water went over his head when Chang sliced an underarm serve in the fifth.

Trying to avert the upset, Lendl faced a match point, as Chang, unable to find any energy to hit a ball, almost kissed the service line to face the serve.

Lendl buried himself, and as his second serve cupped the net, Chang had completed one of the most inspiring victories in the sport. The scorecard read 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in favor of the American.


High hopes

Chang suddenly became the favorite after his fourth round heroics, as he fought tough four-setters over Ronald Agenor and Andrei Chesnokov, both of whom gave their respective career best performances at Grand Slams.

In the other half, Stefan Edberg strongly fought back from a career threatening back spasm which had almost paralyzed him at the Australian Open, to cruise through the semis, and survived a close five-setter against his German rival, Boris Becker, to set up an unexpected final clash. Edberg had thrived during his best clay court season with a record of 14-1 coming into the final.

Roles were reversed on Sunday as a serve-n-volley European faced a counterpunching American.

Chang continued his tactics of attacking Edberg’s serves, by standing inside the baseline and thumping past returns with minimal backswing. The Swede never felt comfortable at net, and lost two service games in a one-sided set which Chang won 6-1.

Edberg immensely improved his serve in the next two, and took advantage of Chang’s weak second serve, as he comfortably took the next two sets to lead two sets to one.

Chang’s struggle with his serve continued, as he survived 12 break points in the last two sets, while I lost count after a 24th deuce on his service games.

Edberg’s confidence started dipping with his inability to pounce on numerous break point chances, and as Chang converted his only break point to take the fourth set, the weariness of Edberg became much more obvious.

He diverted from this strength by trading moonballs with Chang, not finding enough energy to rush to the net. Chang thrived at this game, as he raced through the decider by breaking Edberg twice. At 2-5 and 30-40, the Swede netted an easy volley, as yet another serve-n-volley player returned from Paris with only a bitter taste of the red mud.

Chang sunk his knees to the ground, but unlike past compatriots, he turned the red dirt into golden powder with his tenacity, sheer courage, and creativity.

He fought against the mighty, and adversity, to lift the curse that had been horrifying his fellow players and ancestors for the last 34 years. Chang defeated Edberg 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.


The Golden Era

Chang’s victory marked the beginning of ruthless American dominance in the majors for the next 14 years as Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras compiled 26 Grand Slam victories, including three more at this very court, while Andy Roddick briefly continued their legacy with a US Open and a year end No. 1 ranking.

Its ironic, though, that the torch bearer never managed to repeat his heroics of ’89.