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Chang bids adieu to Roland Garros

Michael Chang toured the world with his racket for the better part of two decades, winning big matches in front of big crowds.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2006 10:12 IST

Michael Chang toured the world with his racket for the better part of two decades, winning big matches in front of big crowds.

The successes and spectators are scarcer this season, his last: About 100 people saw Chang lose at a minor league event in Forest Hills, New York, this month.

Ah, but he'll always have Paris. Chang won the 1989 French Open at 17, still the record for youngest male champion at a Grand Slam tournament, and along the way he beat Ivan Lendl in one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history.

Now 31, Chang will play on Roland Garros' red clay for the final time.

"It's always a good feeling to be back there, playing on the same courts, rekindling memories of those good shots and those tough matches," he said. "You always want to do well. Particularly the last time, it would be nice to win a few matches." He'll find out his first-round opponent in Friday's draw. The biggest question is whether defending champion Serena Williams and her sister, Venus, will be on the same half of the women's bracket. That would end any chance of a fifth straight major final between them.

Among the men, Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt is seeded No. 1, with eight-time Grand Slam titlist Andre Agassi second, and defending champ Albert Costa ninth.

Chang, of course, isn't seeded at all. Playing a limited schedule, he's won just one ATP Tour match all year, is ranked 142nd, and he needed a wild-card invitation to get into his 15th straight French Open.

How long has Chang been around? His first trip to the French Open ended with a third-round loss to John McEnroe.

Chang's breakthrough came a year later, when he became the first American to win at Roland Garros since Tony Trabert in 1955. In doing so, he collected the first major title for what would become a star-studded generation of U.S. men: Chang, Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier.

Alas, it was also Chang's last major title (he lost three other Grand Slam finals).

What a triumph it was, though. He beat Sampras in the second round and Stefan Edberg in the final, and what always will stand out is the fourth-round win over Lendl.

It wasn't just that a kid knocked off the three-time French Open champion and the world's No. 1-ranked player. It was how Chang did it, rallying from a two-set deficit while battling dehydration and leg cramps so painful he didn't sit during changeovers. Chang did whatever it took to paint his 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 masterpiece.

In the fifth set, he caught Lendl napping and tapped a serve underhanded. Lendl returned the ball, came to the net, then missed a volley.

"That's the one time I've ever done it in my career. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Chang said, before revealing where he got the idea. "I can recall that in juniors, Andre Agassi used an underhand serve often."

On match point, Chang moved up to receive serve at the edge of the service line. Lendl double-faulted.

"He showed a lot of courage," Lendl said then; he rarely speaks to reporters nowadays and couldn't be reached for comment. The gumption and stick-to-it-iveness Chang displayed were emblematic of a 5-foot-9 (1.76-meter), 160-pound (72-kilogram) guy who couldn't rely on pure power. He made a career out of tracking down opponents' shots, winning 34 titles and reaching No. 2 in the rankings (he was one win from rising to No. 1 but lost to Sampras in the 1996 U.S. Open final).

TV analyst Mary Carillo was announcing at Roland Garros on June 5, 1989.

"I think Chang is still tired from that match. That's why he hasn't won a major since," Carillo said with a laugh. "It was a remarkable effort."

Plenty of people thought so. Andy Roddick, seeded sixth at this French Open, says he was inspired by watching that tennis marathon at age 6. Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, seeded 10th, called Chang "my hero when I was young."

"In all of sports, he's as great a competitor as you'll ever see," Agassi said after beating Chang at Key Biscayne, Florida, in March. "He has never once not shown up with everything he's had." While he has less to work with lately, Chang can be counted on to try his best right through the U.S. Open. That will be fans' last chance to see him ply his trade, legs churning along the baseline. Even Chang gets a kick out of watching himself play. Every so often, he'll pop in a video of the Lendl match, reliving the 4 1/2 hours that define his career.

"It's odd," Chang said. "I'll be watching the tape, and I'll finish the match and I'll think to myself, 'How did I win that?"'

First Published: May 23, 2003 11:39 IST