Rising Star Michael Chang Breaks Records, Not Rackets
05/29/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Whenever he can, Michael Chang likes to put down his tennis racket and pick up a fishing rod. In some ways, he finds, fishing is like tennis, especially for a player like himself who is noted for steadiness rather than power. Patience and placement are essential. The foe is worn down rather than overwhelmed. But the two activities differ in one major respect. "Fishing is real peaceful," Chang says. "You're in your own little world."
Since he turned pro a year and a half ago, a month before his 16th birthday, Chang has often felt that his little world has turned into a fishbowl. "In the pros, it seems like every match is the finals," he says. "There's always a lot of people watching. Just to see someone like McEnroe on the other side of the court in itself is tough to handle."
But handle it he has. As the 17-year-old Californian travels to Paris this week for the French Open, starting Monday (May 29), he is ranked No. 18 in the world—up from No. 164 when he abandoned his amateur standing. "I'm starting to get the feel of the surface," he says of the slow red clay he'll encounter at Roland Garros Stadium. "I grew up on hard courts. You have to hit more balls to win a point on clay." Chang is clearly getting the idea. On clay last month in Atlanta, he defeated No. 1 Ivan Lendl for the first time.
Though he carries only 135 lbs. on his 5'8" frame, Chang possesses a thunderous topspin forehand and a catlike quickness that have already helped him post a string of "youngests." He is the youngest (15) to win a pro tournament, the youngest (16) to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon since 1927 and, at the time he set the record in 1987, the youngest male (15) ever to win a singles match at the U.S. Open. This spring he became the youngest person to play on the U.S. Davis Cup team since 1928.
In an era when America's tennis elite have been as much known for tantrums as for talent, Chang possesses other qualities—modesty and composure—that are welcome additions to the international scene. "I've only broken a racket once in my life," he says. "I was 8 years old. I lost to my dad and I was mad."
Chang's family is more often a source of strength than frustration. Growing up in St. Paul, Minn., Michael and his brother, Carl, now 20, learned tennis from their father, Joe, a polymer chemist. "He's a tennis fanatic," says Michael. "He gave us drills, fed us balls, encouraged us to do it right."
By 1979, Michael and Carl, who now plays for the University of California at Berkeley, showed such promise that Joe and his wife, Betty, both Chinese immigrants, decided to relocate to California so the boys could play year-round. "We weren't wealthy," says Betty. "We have had to readjust our life-style and completely devote ourselves to tennis." In 1985 the family refinanced their house in San Diego to pay for lessons and travel. When Michael turned pro, Betty, also a chemist, quit her job to travel with him. "We really never imagined Michael would become so big so fast," says Joe. "It's bad for parents to spend too much money for their kids to become superstars. Kids become unbearable with that kind of pressure. We spent $10,000 to $15,000 just to travel the summer circuit. We didn't do it thinking we would get a return on our money."
Joe Chang has always acted as Michael's coach, and he analyzes his son's opponents with scientific rigor. "I learn a lot by watching players' patterns on video," he says. Decisions concerning everything, including Michael's tournament schedule, his leaving high school (he passed an equivalency exam to get his diploma) and his reported multimillion-dollar contract with Reebok, are made at family councils. "They're not formal," Michael says. "Everything's mutual." When the young star needs assistance of a different kind, he turns to Carl. "It's hard to ask a girl to a movie when you don't even know her," he says. "Carl will say, 'She's looking at you, she likes you.' I'm inexperienced in those situations."
Inevitably, some people in tennis refer to the clan as the "Chang gang" and deride their closeness as "family bondage." Even Arthur Ashe weighed in after the '87 U.S. Open, saying Joe was in over his head. Michael's temper flares at the suggestion. "Even if someone else coached me for 10 years, my dad would still be my true coach," he says. "He understands when I need to be pushed or when I need a rest. He was always there, even if I wanted to go hit balls at 9:30 at night."
Lately Michael has found support of another kind. Last year, in a rare idle moment at home, he happened to pick up a Bible. "I became curious and started to learn more," he says. "Now I know I'm here for a purpose that God wants me to fulfill. When I lose, it's like God is telling me I need to work at things."
Chang and his friend Andre Agassi, the 19-year-old who is ranked No. 5 in the world, have taken Bible classes together. For ensuring peace of mind, fishing ranks a close second. But Chang won't go out on the ocean. "I get seasick," he says. The tennis court may not be peaceful, but at least it stands still.
—Susan Reed, Robin Micheli in California