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Action Replay: June 5 1989

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:12

It had the makings of a nothing match – the plucky youngster who had quietly gone about his business in the early rounds of the French Open, finally being brought to book against the three-time former champion. And, with Ivan Lendl, top seed at the 1989 Open, two sets to the good and a break up in the third, it seemed that it would be exactly that – another instantly forgettable speed bump before the business end of the tournament began.

But Michael Chang had other ideas. The Chinese-American, then just 17, had broken virtually every ‘youngest-ever’ record there was to break. Two years earlier, he became the youngest player to win in the main draw of the US Open, and at 16 years and 7 months won his first senior singles title in San Francisco. And if he could go just one round further at Roland Garros, he would become the youngest player ever to reach the quarter final of the French Open. Having just gone behind in the third set, Chang immediately broke back and went on to take the third set 6-3.

Then the fun began. A tale of David and Goliath, a teenager battling back from two sets down against one of the game’s greats, ought to be memorable enough in its own right – but would not begin to tell the story of what became one of the most famous matches in French Open history.

Early in the fourth set, Chang began suffering from severe leg cramps. Within minutes, his serve was reduced to virtually nothing as bending his knees became increasingly difficult. Determined to continue having just got back into the match, the teenager conserved energy at every possible opportunity. He wolfed down bananas at each change of ends, and had the nearest ball boy pass him his water-bottle between points.

But on the slow clay courts of Roland Garros, the rallies threatened to take their toll. Desperately struggling to continue, Chang began hitting moon balls to slow rallies down, waiting for Lendl to play a short ball and going for a winner. Lendl had break points in the first, fifth, seventh and ninth games, but failed to convert any of them. Instead, it was the American who broke to take the match to a deciding set.

By the fifth, Chang could not sit down during the change of ends. He was screaming with pain when making shots, and was given a formal warning from the umpire for stalling between points. But somehow, a clearly rattled Lendl handed him a break in the first game. The Czech had no answer to Chang’s alien tactics, which were becoming increasingly bizarre. In the fifth, Chang had resorted to drawing Lendl to the net and sending up warm-up-style lobs, manoeuvring the top seed to leave a chance for a winner.

When Lendl broke back to level at 3-3, it appeared the natural order of things had been restored. Surely from here, the tournament favourite could dispatch his feeble opponent and put this sorry saga behind him…but no. An error-strewn game handed Chang another break, and unbelievably, the teen was in the driving seat.

Chang was upsetting more than just the form book. The histrionics, while keeping the American on his feet, were also breaking Lendl’s rhythm and many belived his moon ball tactics were unsporting. The Czech was visibly riled when Chang left the court for an extended bathroom break, but it was at 15-30 in the next game that Lendl was sent over the edge.

Lining up to serve in his familiar fidgety fashion, Chang stunned Lendl by hitting a sliced underarm serve. The Czech scrambled the ball back, but Chang picked him off at the net with a winner down the line. Lendl, the consummate professional, flipped, and began barking expletives first at the umpire and then the French crowd. Chang won the game, and Lendl’s errors took him to the brink of victory.

At match point, Lendl missed narrowly with his first serve. Chang, somewhat suicidally, advanced so far up the court that he was almost stood on the service line, waiting to receive. Lendl, perplexed by the move, watched his serve catch the net and go long. Four hours and 38 minutes of tennis summed up in a defining act: another of the American’s desperate, leftfield strategies distracting the Czech into making a basic error.

Chang, having won 4-6 4-6 6-3 6-3 6-3, unsurprisingly sank to his knees and wept. He was the youngest player to reach the French Open quarter finals. A week later, he became the youngest player to win a Grand Slam.

What happened next…

  • Chang’s arrival marked the dawn of America’s ‘Golden Age’ in men’s tennis, as a generation of US players including Jim Courier, Todd Martin, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras dominated throughout the nineties. But while Chang reached three more Grand Slam finals, his 1989 title was his solitary Grand Slam victory.
  • Lendl’s dream of a season slam – winning all four slams after having secured the Australian Open title in January – were dashed that day. ‘Ivan the Terrible’ retained his Australian title the next year, but many believe that 1989 marked the beginning of the end for one of tennis’ all time greats.

By Michael Beattie

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