The Long Goodbye

Michael Chang once had the best set of wheels in tennis. Chugging along on his farewell tour, he ponders where they took him, and how and why they fell off. By JOEL DRUCKER.

SETTLING in behind the wheel of his black Mercedes SUV, Michael Chang fishes out a colourful key chain decorated with the letters "WWJD" ("What would Jesus do?") and starts his car. Christian rock blares for a moment until he turns the volume down and prepares to pull into the morning traffic in Bellevue, Washington, near his home on Mercer Island.

Michael Chang, with his parents Betty and Joe in the background, talks to his fans during a farewell ceremony following his match at the NASDAQ-100 Open at the Crandon Park Tennis Center in Miami, Florida. -- Pic. EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

Chang's jet-black hair is, as always, neatly combed. He's wearing pressed khakis with a silver cellphone attached to his belt and a white sweatshirt with smiling Disney characters all over it. He fits in nicely with the local laptop-toting techie crowd. Analytical by nature and precise by habit, Chang once allowed that, were it not for tennis, he probably would have been a biology student.

It promises to be that Pacific Northwest rarity, a sunny day, and Chang is cheerful. Smiling, the 15-year ATP veteran ponders his ongoing farewell tour, which will culminate in late summer at the U.S. Open, where he'll officially retire. Chang's ranking has fallen so low (he was No. 126 at the start of the year) that he must rely on wild cards to enter tournaments he once won. Still, he's determined to make one more go-round.

"I feel that I'm not able to put in the hard work, day in, day out, and love doing it. So my time to stop has probably come," Chang, 31, says. "This whole year, I want to try to take advantage of the opportunity to say thank you. It's never been my style to go out in the middle of the court and bow all around, the way Andre does, but I want the crowd to know how I feel how much I appreciate the support they gave me all these years."

A consistent Top 10 performer, Chang's game was a textbook example of a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. He stood just 5-foot-9 and had no major weapons, but he was a tireless competitor and consistent Grand Slam contender who made life miserable for many bigger, stronger, flashier players. Chang won 34 singles titles, including a lone, but historic, major. He was just 17 when he won at Roland Garros in 1989, a feat that made him not only the youngest man to win a Slam, but the first American champion at Roland Garros since Tony Trabert in 1955.

Chang's impact on the future of the game was even more notable. His title was the first of a whopping 27 (and still counting) majors secured by an American generation that also includes Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, who says, "Michael blew us away by winning that French Open. He opened the door and suddenly put the idea that we could win big titles right in our grasp."

But Chang would never hold aloft the trophy at another Slam. He spent six straight years in the Top 10, after which he fell fast and hard. "The last few years, it's been tougher tennis-wise," he concedes. A devout Christian, Chang adds, "It's also been a period of trial, of testing my faith and maturing."

Contemplating Chang's struggles as well as his triumphs, Agassi says, "Michael is as great a competitor as you'll see, not just in tennis, but in all of sports. He's never once not shown up for a match with everything he has, and his achievement in Paris was something special."

We hole up in a small cafe in Bellevue. When breakfast arrives, a hungry Chang bows his head and prays before starting in on a fruit platter and bagel. His thoughts shift to the morning of June 6, 1989, and waking in the room he shared with his mother, Betty, at a Hotel Sofitel in Paris.

Betty had brought a rice cooker with her, and right in the hotel room she went to work on Michael's favourite dish, homemade chicken soup. By nightfall, her 135-pound son would need every drop of it.

That day at Roland Garros, in a round-of-16 match, Chang, seeded 15th, met the top-seeded and supremely fit world No. 1, Ivan Lendl. As expected, Lendl punished Chang for the first two sets, winning them 6-4, 6-4. Then Chang recalling the nights that Betty had helped him manage a pile of homework by dividing it into small chunks, told himself to focus on winning just one more point, then just one more game.

He began crafting one of the most inspired comebacks in tennis history. He won the next two sets, but the surprises were just beginning. In the decisive fifth set, as Lendl grew frustrated, Chang fought against debilitating cramps. He pulled out all the stops, including serving underhand and planting himself just behind the service line to distract Lendl before he served. Chang eventually won a match for the ages 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. When it ended, he fell to the court exhausted and exhilarated, his clothing strained red, tears of joy and pain streaming down his cheeks. Three matches later, Chang became the French Open champion, beating Stefan Edberg in the final in five tough sets. He also instantly became an international icon, especially in the strife-torn homeland of Chang's parents, China.

While Chang says his win was partly the residue of "innocent confidence," he believes fate played a part, too. Throughout that spring, Chinese youth had been crusading in the streets of Beijing for greater democracy only to see their hopes dashed in the brutal crackdown against demonstrators in the capital's Tiananmen Square. Chang says, "I've always believed the saying about the Lord working in mysterious ways, and I still have this odd feeling about that Lendl match. I still don't know how I won it, even though I've watched it over and over. So I feel like in certain aspects it was God's purpose. It was a very down time for Chinese people and I gave them something to smile about."

For Chang, the ensuing years would be a mix of general success and specific frustration. As Chang's father, Joe, once observed, "Michael won his first Slam as a boy. He'd like to win a second one as a man." Although Chang improved technically, tactically and fitness-wise over the years and continued to build on his reputation as a nonpareil competitor (nobody ever accused him of being a half-realised one-Slam champion, a la Marat Safin or Goran Ivanisevic), that Next Big Win proved elusive.

Chang's dilemma was neatly encapsulated by his history at the U.S. Open, where over a seven-year period (1991-97) he was beaten six times by the tournament's eventual winner. The 1992 champion, Edberg, overcame Chang in a five-set thriller, and two years later Agassi called his five-set win over Chang "my bar mitzvah in tennis, the match that made me a man." In 1996, Chang upended Agassi only to fall to a devastatingly in-form Sampras in straight sets in the final.

"After that match I consoled myself with the idea that what goes up must come down," Chang says. Then he pushes his bagel away and does something uncharacteristic — he bursts out laughing. "Little did I know that I wasn't talking about Sampras, but about myself."

Later in the day, Michael and his brother and coach, Carl, decide to take advantage of the fine weather and play a round of golf. Carl is wearing a snappy black vest as the two prepare to tee off at the exclusive Golf Club at Newcastle. Michael's clubs are sheathed in furry purple, green and orange covers featuring still more Disney characters. Why Disney? "These covers remind me that golf is just a game," Chang says.

Carl, who is three years older than Michael, golfs, fishes, plays tennis and prays with his brother. An All-American at Cal-Berkeley who briefly tested the pro-tour waters, Carl had plenty of experience playing in the juniors against Michael's chief pro rivals, Sampras, Agassi and Courier. It was natural for him to evolve into Michael's coach in the two years following his win in Paris.

That transition also typified the dynamics of the close-knit Changs, a family that uses the words "we" and "I" interchangeably. And while the Chang boys are highly competitive, they're so self-controlled, polite and supportive of each other that over the course of an 18-hole round neither will utter even a single profanity.

Looking back on a career spent travelling and playing 11 months out of each year, Michael says, "In all honesty, as gruelling as the tour can be, it has never been lonely because of my family."

But the Changs were sometimes accused of insularity. After all, Michael was the player who once, in a practice session with Courier, refused to play a set for fear of revealing his tactics. At various times, Michael's failure to win that second major led Carl to offer to step down in favour of a new coach. But the family never felt comfortable with outside blood. As Michael says, "We were going to win and lose together."

In fact, Carl Chang takes the blame for making a late-career change that might have hastened his brother's demise. After suffering a devastating loss to Patrick Rafter (whom Michael had consistently beaten in the past) in the 1997 U.S. Open semifinals, Carl thought Michael needed to adopt a more rigorous training routine.

"We were so close to reaching the top, we finished that year at number three," Carl says. "We thought that if we stepped up Michael's training, we'd get there. But the opposite happened."

Over that winter, Michael says, "I drilled my body into the ground. I was labouring it. I just wasn't letting my faith be enough."

In March of 1998, knee and wrist injuries led to a slow unravelling of Chang's game. With his body giving out, his mental edge was also dulled. As he says, "It took more and more effort to win points the way I play. When I first came on tour, tennis was a little more about touch. As my career went on, it became less chess-like, and the stature of the typical player changed. The guys became much bigger and stronger."

As Carl prepares to putt out on the 18th green, Michael speculates on what is still a somewhat hazy future. His focus will be sports (he is intrigued by the idea of coaching) and the activities of the Chang Family Foundation, whose mission includes spreading the "word of Christ" through family-sponsored sports and community events (like tennis camps and basketball leagues), especially among Asians.

In recent years, Chang has also worked hard on finding true love, once posting this note on his Web site: "Sometimes I think it's easier to win a Grand Slam than it is to find a wife." As of this spring, he was dating a Chinese-American woman from Seattle.

The round is over and Michael is convinced that he's beaten Carl by a few strokes. But Carl isn't taking his word for it. The brothers huddle and double-check their scorecards.

"We're pretty close," Michael says, "but I think I won." Carl smiles. "Yeah, I think you won."

It isn't just about the winning, Michael knows.

And it's even less about that in these pleasant, stress-free days, as Chang struggles to win the odd match here and there while basking in the admiration of thousands of fans at every whistle-stop on his nine-month victory lap. Still, he can't help but ask himself, "Why didn't I win another Grand Slam? Why not multiple Slams, like Pete or Andre or Jim?"

It's a difficult question, most tellingly answered by another question — the one that resounded all over the world in June of 1989: "What on earth can this guy do for an encore?"

From Tennis Magazine @ 2003 By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.