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GIANT KILLERS

June 19, 1989
June 19, 1989

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June 19, 1989

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GIANT KILLERS

Teen terrors Michael Chang and Arantxa Sanchez pulled off amazing upsets at the French Open

When Michael Chang, nothing more than a tender Chinese-American boy playing far away from his Southern California home and subsisting on his mom's noodles cooked in their hotel room, won another extraordinary tennis match on Sunday, he did far more than prevail through a grueling 21 hours and 261 games to become the first American man to win the French Open since Tony Trabert did so 34 years ago. By coming from behind in the final to defeat Stefan Edberg of Sweden, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and by absolutely bamboozling Ivan Lendl, the world's No. 1 player, a few rounds earlier, Chang gave a much needed lift to U.S. tennis and hope to a sport that has nearly been put to sleep by the humdrum excellence of its leaders.

This is an article from the June 19, 1989 issue Original Layout

But Chang, just 17, wasn't the tournament's only new breeze. As an hors d'oeuvre of improbability that helped create the most astonishing combined result in a Grand Slam event in the modern era, maybe any era, another 17-year-old, Arantxa Sanchez of Spain, stepped into the zone and actually beat the seemingly unbeatable Steffi Graf in an enthralling three-hour performance on Saturday. That came two days after a precocious 15-year-old named Monica Seles softened up Graf, who had won five straight Grand Slam titles, in the semifinals.

Chang was an inspiration for Sanchez even before he was a champion. "I see Michael beat Lendl and ask, Why not I am beating Number One?" said Sanchez in her delightfully fractured English. She supplied her response with a 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 victory.

Chang's arsenal is based on anticipation, reflexes, speed—nobody has been quicker to the ball since Bjorn Borg—and defensive instincts that make an opponent feel as if he is slugging away at Chang's garage door in Placentia, Calif. "He is so young, maybe a little bit lucky," said Edberg after losing 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. "Maybe he doesn't think too much."

You couldn't be more mistaken, Stefan. Chang was always thinking, always outthinking. He mystified his elders with his head—"the head of a champion," said Jose Higueras, who coaches him on clay—and of them all, Edberg was the most mystified.

After Edberg had worked his way back into the championship match and taken control with some characteristic serve-and-volley aggression, he broke Chang's serve to start the fourth set. But the 5'8", 135-pound Chang, who came into the tournament ranked 19th in the world, was steadfast in his resolve. He stayed two yards inside the baseline to return Edberg's huge deliveries on the rise. He kept testing Edberg's fragile forehand. He picked his spots and matched volleys with the best volleyer in the game. Shockingly, he broke right back for 1-1. Chang then began fighting off break points: four in Game 3, five in Game 7, another in Game 9. With Edberg serving at 4-5, 30-all, Chang smashed a couple of forehand returns off first serves, and suddenly the match was all even.

Or was it? In the fifth set Chang matched Edberg's opening break by breaking right back in an 18-point game. Chang broke again to go ahead 3-1. By now Edberg, who had beaten Boris Becker in a five-set semifinal, looked exhausted, almost groggy.

In the next game Edberg had double break point, but he erred on both, and Chang held after four deuces to lead 4-1. A glassy-eyed Edberg was slumping at the baseline. The umpire had to tell him it was time for the changeover. Edberg had to know it was just over, period.

"I can't really explain what happened to turn it around," said Chang, who had prepared some notes for an acceptance speech in which he remembered to mention nearly everybody in the sport except Edberg. Well, at the least, an American had finally won in Paris.

As much as Chang did for the men's game in Paris, Graf benefited women's tennis more by what she did not do—namely, win. With all the cherubs frolicking across the dirt paths of Roland Garros—the average age of the women's semifinalists was 17—it was easy to forget that Graf was celebrating the final week of her own teen years. But for the first time she seemed to be bowing to the combined pressures of fading adolescence and her multinational celebrityhood. She had to recognize that the biorhythms of love, health and nature were obviously conspiring against her.

Graf's new boyfriend, tour player Alexander Mronz, who's No. 172 on the ATP computer, survived the qualifying tournament but lost in the first round. Her flu-ridden father, Peter, remained in his sickbed back home in Bruhl, West Germany, for the first 12 days of the tournament. He showed up for the final, but after the first set he left his box and flew out of Paris on a private jet. Steffi herself became ill after eating what she described as a "bad pizza" on June 6. Though she didn't dwell on it, a pale and weakened Graf played both the semis and finals between bouts of vomiting and while losing nearly seven pounds. Alas, it was also Graf's time of the month. The reason she dashed from the court before the last game of the final, she told the assembled world press, was "I had my period."

All of this is to take nothing away from the S & S girls, Seles and Sanchez, who made the tournament quickly forget it had been spurned by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Seles, who's from Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, debuted on Court Central in the third round by waving to the crowd as she entered the stadium and throwing flowers into the stands. When Seles attempted to present a bouquet to her opponent, fourth-seeded Zina Garrison, and Garrison refused it, the spectators booed Garrison. "It's a bunch of hype," said Garrison after being blown away 6-3, 6-2. "She's just another baseliner." And Madonna is just another Pepsi-Cola ad.

Seles hits everything off both wings with a two-fisted swing, and her strokes are accompanied by a bewildering array of guttural yowls that seem to vary in timbre according to the situation. For a lob she employs the basic gasping, quick whoosh cry, while a lunging backhand drive requires a four-syllable, jungle squeal. "Monica used to sound like a Christmas goose being strangled to death," said Ted Tinling, the tennis couturier. "But she's gotten much better."

Better? Some Parisians used to call Jimmy Connors le Grognon, the Grunter. Seles makes Connors sound like Perry Como. But, oh, that style! One day Seles swept through Roland Garros's media center decked out in a black-and-white polka dot outfit with a triple-tiered skirt and gigantic hoop earrings. Her long tresses were combed down and out from that stark on-court squiggly pony-tail, and, as usual, she was carrying an armful of posies with her Louis Vuitton bag. The stir wouldn't have been any greater had Catherine Deneuve shown up dressed like Woody Woodpecker.

Incidentally, Woody is the linguistic pioneer to whom Seles, who bursts into a giggle about every other breath, is often compared. When told that Graf thought little Monica was terrific for women's tennis, the 5'4", 99-pound Seles replied, "She's right! Huh-huh-huh-HEE-huh. It's always good when there's a new face in town. Huh-huh-huh-HEE-huh."

Of course, that was before Seles's physical resiliency, hitting power, competitive zest and tactical precocity took Graf to the brink in their semifinal, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 victory for Graf. At once it was clear that if a player is sufficiently quick and irrepressible enough to keep hanging in and slugging it out with Graf, the champ gets anxious and irritable. Evert is not fast enough anymore, and Navratilova lacks patience and confidence. Second-seeded Gabriela Sabatini, who lost to 17-year-old Mary Joe Fernandez in the fourth round, seems in psychological disarray. Sooner, rather than later, Seles may be No. 2.

For Seles, who beat Evert in April to win a tournament in Houston, the Graf match was her 14th as a professional but only her first defeat.

Although Seles lost, the point was made: Graf could be had. "She [Seles] went three sets to show us all. I must pressure Steffi the same way," said Sanchez, who had been known mostly as the laughing-eyed younger sister of Emilio, 24 (ranked 18th on the men's tour), and Javier, 21 (65th), and as the daughter of Marisa, who dances a mean flamenco at tournament parties. At last year's French Open, however, Sanchez took out Evert en route to the quarterfinals, and this year she took Evert's former hitting partner, Juan Nunez, as well. A former Davis Cup player for Chile, Nunez improved Sanchez's speed and turned her high, arching topspin forehand into a weapon capable of hurting anyone.

On Saturday, Arantxa (pronounced ah-RAHN-cha)—she's named after Saint Aranzazu, the patron of the Basques—kept pulling Graf wide with crosscourt forehands. That opened up the court and enabled Sanchez to work on the champion's vulnerable backhand. More, she kept running and fighting. Graf had made 45 unforced errors against Seles; she made 71 against Sanchez.

Graf was not right in the early going, failing to convert 10 of 11 break points, including two set points, in the first set. Sanchez won the tiebreaker 8-6. "It was not me out there," Graf would say later.

But after Graf won the second set 6-3 and rallied from 1-3 down in the third to serve for the match at 5-3, Sanchez stood exactly where Seles had. But Sanchez never stopped pushing, even though the rallies had lasted 30 and 40 shots. "Arantxa is sweet," said Nunez, "but on the court she is a lion."

Who could guess what would happen next? Not a collapse but a champion beaten. Graf missed the easiest overhead imaginable, allowing Sanchez to break serve at love. Sanchez easily held and broke again at love to go up 6-5. Obviously sick, Graf now had to leave the court. Even sadder, she had to come back. After one last feeble backhand into the net on match point, she had lost 16 of the last 19 points, and Sanchez was rolling on the bronze dirt. When she got up, she hurried, crying, into Graf's arms. Nobody could remember a deposed monarch ever giving such a heartfelt hug to an opponent. "I am very joyed," said Sanchez, the first Spanish player and youngest woman to win the French Open. "I am so exciting to win Steffi."

Chang surely felt the same about winning Stefan in the men's final. But even if he wins another dozen Grand Slam titles times a dozen, he has probably already played the match of his lifetime—an astonishing 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 fourth-round victory over Lendl, in which he cramped up so badly he could barely move throughout the last anguishing set. Chang had begun moon-balling Lendl, a three-time champion at Roland Garros, late in the fourth set to conquer fatigue and to tease Lendl. "Outboring the Bore," said one wag.

But then Chang was gulping water and moving haltingly between points and eating bananas during the changeovers. Although Chang was obviously in pain—but was also somehow able to suddenly swat winners like a wounded animal—Lendl refused to swing out, to take the net, to change tactics, to do anything to end the mercy killing. "You might say Lendl was choking," said Mats Wilander. "But it is not easy to play against a guy with cramps."

In the fifth set Chang broke Lendl's serve three times, and Lendl broke back twice. Then came two ploys right off the playground that thrust the crafty Chang into French Open folklore.

At 4-3, 15-30, Chang quick-wristed an underhand serve, in French, un cruyere, which stunned Lendl. He lost the point, the game and all composure as well, screaming invectives at both the chair umpire and the crowd as he fell behind 15-40 in the next game. Match point, second serve. For my next trick....

Chang boldly hobbled to within a couple of feet of the service box to receive Lendl's second delivery. The chutzpah of "this little squirt!" as Chang called himself afterward. Lendl looked on as amazed as everyone else in the howling stadium. He paused, furious. After almost five hours of play, Lendl's serve had no chance. It ricocheted off the net cord and into ignominious oblivion. Chang fell to his knees, sobbing.

"I was trying to break his concentration," said Chang of his distracting ploy on match point. "I would do anything to stay out there. It was that mental thing."

Chang's tactics did not pass without furor, however. The question of sportsmanship was raised by old pros like Ilie Nastase—talk about the pot calling the kettle black—and Fred Stolle. Moreover, a former player was quoted in L'Equipe, the French sports daily, as doubting the severity of Chang's cramps. "I do not agree with that," said one French journalist. "But knowing the vicious Oriental mind...."

Racism continued to color the French press's reporting of Chang. One headline, which was a quote from a photographer, read LE CHINETOQUE VA NOUS FAIRE VENDRE ("The Chink Will Sell Us Some Pictures"). L'Equipe's leading columnist, Denis Lallane, referred to Chang as "notre petit bride" ("our little slant eyes").

By the time Chang disposed of Andre Chesnokov—who in the quarters defeated Wilander, the defending champion—in the semis, much of Chang's once charming implacability was now being seen by the French as hucksterism. A daily program at Roland Garros promoted the Chang-Chesnokov match as Le Russe et Le Ruse ("the Russian and the Trickster"). Chang won 6-1, 5-7, 7-6, 7-5 in another four-hour struggle, but not before he had slyly stolen still another edge by stopping play—without a line call—in the middle of a point. After the umpire was summoned to the dispute, he granted the point to Chang, and that set the French crowd firmly against the American.

But nothing upset the kid; nothing, in fact, seemed to stir him. "I don't think about the matches," he said, being sure to add his favorite phrase, "and stuff." Here he was about to become the youngest man ever to win a Grand Slam title, and he hardly changed expression. Joy? Enthusiasm? Nerves? Mais non. Hey, kid, excuse us. This French Open thing keeping you up?

Borg was weirdly desensitized in a similar way as a teenager. Wilander was too, when he won Paris at 17. But they were Swedes. Chang's from Southern California—sun, fun, surf, Janet Evans land, mall paradise, America the...Get Excited! But with Chang, nobody was home.

The son of two research chemists, Joe and Betty, Chang obviously inherited his computer-trap mind. Joe, whose family fled mainland China for Taiwan in the rout of Chiang Kai-shek, emigrated to the U.S. in 1966 and met Betty on a blind date in New York City. Michael has an older brother, Carl, who plays tennis for the University of California.

Betty says Michael plays tennis "to spread the word," and he surely did that last week, crediting his every victory to "the Lord Jesus Christ." After miraculously outlasting Lendl, he said, "I prayed, and my cramps went away. Maybe there are more important things to pray for, but everything that happens in my life is because of Him. I get my strength from Him. He's in control. He keeps me going."

Following the final, Edberg dismissed any higher authority holding sway over the result. But Chang again acknowledged the Lord, whose name the crowd greeted with not a few hefty boos and whistles. "I know every time I bring Jesus up, everybody nods and gets sick of it," he said. "But it's the truth. He gets all the credit."

Hey, whatever works: mom's noodles, computers, religion. But it was Chang who won the French Open and made such nifty history in Paris. Heaven—and the underhand serve—can wait.

PHOTOBOB MARTIN/ALLSPORTChang netted the title with an unusual arsenal of speed, agility and unmitigated guile.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Edberg's attacking style served him well against everyone except Chang.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Among men, a dimpled child was champion.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Down the stretch in the grueling final, Sanchez hung tough against a weakened Graf.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Until losing to Sanchez, Graf had left five consecutive Grand Slam events as a winner.PHOTOBOB MARTIN/ALLSPORTFernandez, another teen, had an eye on the final but got the back of Sanchez's hand.PHOTOBOB MARTIN/ALLSPORTSeles's (grunt) competitors won't be looking (squeal) down on her (hee-hee) much longer.