Excited reporter at U.S. Open: "What do you think of Michael Chang?"
Puzzled John McEnroe: "Who's Michael Chang?"
Michael Chang of Placentia, Calif., is, in fact, the new U.S. junior champion and last week's new Yank hope. At Flushing Meadow a worldly British writer viewed the stands (and press section) packed with Pollyanna Americans who had come to see Chang play, and shook his head. "Oh my," he said. "Now you Americans are getting as desperate as we've been."
Chang is indeed a bit special. The juniors are for players 18 and under, and he's only 15½, which makes him the youngest male to compete in the U.S. championships since Vinnie Richards, who was 15‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® when he played in 1918. Moreover, Chang is only 5'8" and 131 pounds, with a sturdy pair of bowlegs. He's also believed to be the first Chinese-American male to play in the Open and one of the biggest Chinese-American sports stars to burst onto the scene since the fabled Celestial Comet, halfback Johnny Chung, put Plainfield (N.J.) Teachers College on the map in the fall of 1941.
Better than most of the wide-eyed adults who followed him about last week, Chang understood that he was as much a happy curiosity as he was the future. What made him so appealing was, as Chang himself put it, that he was "15 and stuff" and "Chinese and stuff." It also didn't hurt that anybody could tell he was a whale of a nice kid. Michael hates to beat his older brother Carl—an 18-year-old who ranked 19th in the juniors last year—because "I don't want anybody to tease him and say, 'Gee, you lost to your little brother.' "
Nobody at Flushing Meadow had heard of Chang until he whipped Paul McNamee in four sets in the first round. Chang was seeded only sixth at last month's U.S. junior championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. Until that time none of the experts was touting Chang (or anybody else) as savior potential. But the big thing about the junior championships is that, like the Democratic presidential nomination and the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, somebody has to win it. Usually the attention directed to the victorious kid is measured in inverse proportion to how the adult U.S. male players are faring. Nobody even knew we had a junior champion when Ashe, Smith, Connors and McEnroe were riding high.
The Changs understand this. Joe Chang, Michael and Carl's father and coach, is a chemist for Unocal. Sure, his son was starring at the U.S. Open, but Joe had business in North Carolina, so he stayed down there and let his wife, Betty, and other family members tend to tennis things. Naturally, a lot of folks were blowing smoke in Betty's face. "There's no rush," she said calmly. "Michael's still just a little boy, and I want to keep him that way."
Michael has already declined an invitation to try out for the Junior Davis Cup team. "I could miss out on being a 15-year-old," he said, "and then, you know, life could get boring."
Everybody sees the way for the U.S. to return to the top in tennis—in his own mirror. Boris Becker, for example, suggests that kids like Chang should quit school and get on with it, just as Boris did. Ivan Lendl says they "must work their bum off" and then play in easy tournaments to "learn how to win, and then work their bum off" again in difficult tournaments to experience defeat. Olga Morozova, a Wimbledon finalist in 1974 who now is a coach of the revived Soviet team, says, "You need a national team with an experienced coach who works hard and is not to be on TV all the time, saying this and that."
Now that tennis is an Olympic sport, the Russians are going whole hog. The team has a clothing contract with Nike and is represented by ProServ, the player-management firm. Wimbledon was on Soviet TV for several hours a day this summer, and privileged Soviets are building neighborhood tennis clubs. But, Morozova says, the U.S.S.R. is so powerful in world sport that the people are "spoiled" and need a big star before tennis really gets hot. Sound familiar?
One Soviet player, Andrei Chesnokov, a human backboard in wrinkled clothes and droopy socks who makes the Swedes seem scintillating, reached the round of 16 at Flushing Meadow last year. Last week the draw exploded a hole for him that was bigger than the one Mathias Rust found in Soviet air defenses. But the big Soviet hope is Natalia Zvereva, who's bright and peppy and only 10 months older than Chang. Chris Evert clobbered her in the third round on Sunday, but as Morozova says, "People from cold climates grow up later."
If the U.S.S.R. gets a box-office star, that player might get peeved at having all the rubles sent back to the national federation while his or her opponents are buying estates in Connecticut. Morozova, a delightful woman who favors Yves St. Laurent sunglasses, acknowledges that that day must come if the glasnost gang stays on tour, which it must do to stay competitive for Seoul and, more realistically, for Barcelona in '92. "I will say something," she says, "but the time is not for now."
Big-time tennis has two distinct faces. Off the court, it is all American. Everybody talks American, dresses American, rocks American, looks American and, more or less, wants to be American. On the court, however, the nationalistic European system is what builds winners. It is no coincidence that the dominant champions of the mid-'80s have been Martina Navratilova and Lendl, who were born European and train European but live American. The U.S., no less than the U.S.S.R., must understand that reality, and the U.S. Tennis Association took a first step the other day when it proposed a European-type system for finding and schooling American talent.
Chang is an anomaly because Asian-Americans have seldom been noted for their athletic prowess. But how about Chung, the Celestial Comet, who became famous when his gridiron exploits were reported in newspapers week after week? In fact, he didn't exist. The Chinese halfback was one of the greatest hoaxes in U.S. sports history.
But Chang is quite real. And so, for that matter, is Tommy Ho, a 14-year-old Chinese-American from Winter Haven, Fla., who some think is an even better prospect. Asian-American kids are on the cover of TIME, win all the science competitions and flood the best campuses. Chang is Chinese chic—and never mind that he lost in the second round to Duke Odizor, 29, of Nigeria. The American kid fought back from being down 6-1, 6-2 to carry Odizor to five sets.
Chang's grandfather, Michael Tung, waited for him after the match. Tung grew up in Hankow, fled to Taiwan when Mao took over in 1949 and eventually brought his family to America. Someone said he must be proud of his grandson. "Yes, but I am proud of my daughter, too," he said. "I'm proud of Betty that she brought up such a wonderful son of the United States."