BOY WONDER : Michael Chang Has Found God And a Seven-Figure Income. Now All He Needs is Another Big Tennis Win.

Thomas Bonk covers tennis for The Times

THERE HASN'T been a real American Tennis Hero since 1985, the last time an American man ranked No. 1 on the computer, or maybe 1984, the last time an American male took a Grand Slam title and the last time America made it to the finals in the prestigious international Davis Cup competition. No one has quite fit the bill. Not Ivan Lendl, who only lives in America. Not John McEnroe, who used to be the best. And not Andre Agassi, who looked like he could be the best . . . last year.

Then in June, Michael Chang, a teen-ager from Placentia, stunned everyone (including himself) with a victory at the French Open, and the search for an American Tennis Hero suddenly took the form of a question: Is this any job for a shy, quiet, 134-pound, 5-foot, 8-inch Chinese-American 17-year-old with cropped black hair, a "born-again" victory speech, a dad for a coach and a serve your mother could return?

Until his success at the French, Michael Chang had been nothing more than a standard-bearer for the most overworked word in U.S. men's tennis: potential. Like a string of prodigies from Tracy Austin to Aaron Krickstein, he had frequently been the youngest high achiever at every level. He had been the youngest player to win a match at the U.S. Open in 1987 (when he was 15); the youngest to win the U.S. Junior National Championships (when he was 15 1/2); the youngest to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 60 years (in 1988); the youngest to play on a U.S. Davis Cup team in 61 years (against Paraguay, last January).

And then came Paris, where Chang delivered on that much-vaunted potential. On the red clay at Stade Roland Garros, he became the youngest man ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. His was the first triumph by a U.S. men's player in Paris in 34 years.

Now he must prove that he's not just a flash in the pan, a one-event Boy Wonder. So far it hasn't been easy. He played respectably on the grass courts of Wimbledon, where a big serve is an advantage, making it to the round of 16. But in two recent outings on hard courts, the surface Chang grew up on, he lost early against players at the bottom of the computer rankings. Starting tomorrow in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., he has another chance to live up to his potential. All he has to do is win the U.S. Open.

DEEP DOWN inside, beneath a sort-of-cool, sort-of-not exterior, Michael Chang feels utterly ordinary. He lives, after all, in his parents' tract house in Placentia. He likes his mom and dad, who are not just his parents but also partners in his tennis career. His high school counselor says he got good grades; he likes to fish; he gets an allowance; he's eager to get his driver's license. But Michael Chang is also extraordinary, even without the Grand Slam title. He attended high school all of two days a week his sophomore year and dropped out at 15. His allowance, reported to be $100 a month, comes out of a million-dollar-plus annual income. Last year, his first as a professsional tennis player, he played in 15 tournaments, traveling the world, albeit with his mother as chaperone. And then there's all the attention.

On this day, the neighborhood calm along the trim streets bordering Placentia's Alta Vista golf course has been replaced by the buzz of a media event. A string of reporters and technicians makes its way to the Changs' home. A television magazine crew camps out in the dining room, cables crawl along the carpet, and hot lights shine in every direction. Outside, a black stretch limousine waits to take Chang to the NBC studios in Burbank and a guest appearance on The Tonight Show.

After finishing his television interview, but before he gets into the limo, Chang poses for more pictures for a magazine article. In the midst of all this, he finds time to talk with one more reporter asking yet another series of questions about why he's so good, about why he won in Paris. This is not Chang's favorite leisure activity--he'd rather be bass fishing--but he endures it pretty well. Fame has arrived at Michael Chang's door, and he seems to have been expecting it. "It doesn't totally bother me or anything," he says. "In a way, it's been coming on little by little, so I'm getting used to it. It's not like it's taking me apart or anything. It's definitely part of being a professional tennis player."

He answers questions in as few words as possible. How has his life changed since he won the French, rocketed from No. 23 to No. 5 in the world rankings and added $290,752 to this year's income?

"Well," he says, with no trace of sarcasm, "I'm richer."

But when the questions turn toward what he is really, really like, Chang gets uncomfortable. His already laconic style grinds to a halt.

"You know, that's kind of hard to say--how you really are," Chang offers. "Ask somebody else."

At 17, he finds it difficult to define himself in words. But he is adept enough at self-expression on the tennis court. Presssed to describe his strengths there, he says, "my mind," and taps his head, then pats his thighs and adds, "my legs." His well-developed thighs give him speed and power, vital in a sport where players must chase down shot after shot if they expect to win. And he is fast, with a quickness that's been compared to Bjorn Borg's. But men's tennis today is increasingly dominated by power players, Boris Beckers who can smash unreturnable serves at 120 mph. Unless Chang grows taller, his serve will always be a weakness. But his speed and technically excellent strokes still allow him to build a game on finesse.

A key to that finesse is the mental side of Michael Chang. In the end, it's the game that differentiates the masters from the technicians. Generally, it takes years to develop the dual ability to concentrate despite distractions and to continue playing hard after falling behind.

No less an authority than John McEnroe thinks Chang has a head start on the others. "Listen, this guy mentally is unbelievable for that age," he says. "Chang is very, very strong mentally."

Arthur Ashe, another elder statesman, agrees: "He is easily the smartest young player I have ever seen. He has an intuitive sense that I can only compare to a chess prodigy at age 9. You see him do things on the court that you would expect to see from someone who's been on the tour for years."

"People do not see the mental part of tennis," Chang explains. "You may wonder why (a player) handles situations better. You see a guy make an unforced error, you just think 'Oh, gosh, he just missed the shot.' But it's something else.

"In the juniors, I always had tight situations. I was always competing with guys who were bigger, stronger, older than I was. Just to be put in that situation--you can't run away from it. You have to deal with it. If you don't deal with it, you're going to lose."

The championship potential of Chang's mind and his legs became very clear at the French Open. Many regard the two-week French as the most grueling of the four major annual tennis tournaments, the so-called Grand Slam events: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

The French tournament is played on clay courts dusted with a quarter-inch of crushed red brick. The clay surface slows down the ball as it bounces, and players have time to get to each shot and return it. A big serve is not as vital as being able to grind out a match. And it isn't easy to hit "winners"--unreturnable shots that simply beat an opponent cold. Points are longer than on grass or hard-surface courts; matches of five hours are commonplace. The French Open rewards endurance and mental toughness as well as good strategy and precision shotmaking.

This year, Chang found himself in the half of the draw with Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, the No. 1 player in the world. They met in the semifinals, and the outcome seemed to be a given. Even his father, Joe Chang, who acts as his coach, didn't bother to stay for the Lendl match. "There was no way Michael could win," the elder Chang said.

Lendl won the first two sets and needed just one more to take the match. But Chang began to wear him down. Running to return shot after shot, he tied the match at two sets apiece. Then Chang lost a key tool: Muscle cramps in his legs made it difficult even to sit down during changeovers, much less chase the ball effectively. So in the fifth set, he had to beat Lendl with his head.

Eating bananas and drinking water during breaks to help cure the leg cramps, Chang played defensively, lobbing the ball over Lendl's head to buy rest time for himself as Lendl ran to return it. He looked for openings to blast winners past Lendl, who seemed unable to change his own game plan and take advantage of Chang's obvious distress. And the strategy worked.

Lendl eventually faced a match point on his serve to stay in the competition. His first serve was long. Before he could serve again, Chang moved up inside the baseline, just steps behind the service line. The crowd of more than 16,000 cheered wildly at Chang's audacity. It was a ploy he'd used before, a move that telegraphed the insult: "I know you're going to blow the shot." Lendl pleaded for quiet, got only a little, then, flustered, sent his second serve skidding across the top of the net and long to give the match to Chang.

From there, Chang slugged two-fisted backhands and looping topspin forehands in the final where he once again came from behind and wore down his opponent, beating Stefan Edberg of Sweden, ranked No. 3 in the world, to claim his first Grand Slam title.

What had happened to his opponents? And how had he managed to dissolve Lendl's legendary composure? "I don't know," Chang says. "Having to play a 17-year-old, being two sets up, I get cramps--maybe he was thinking too much. It's like a hesitation, to compare it to bass fishing. You have a hesitation in the line, and the bass might feel some kind of resistance and let go."

Maybe that's it.

There is one thing Chang does know for sure about the victory in the crucial match against Lendl: "I said a prayer and my cramps went away."

THE DAY AFTER he met the press at his home in Placentia and appeared on The Tonight Show, he and his family appeared at the Chinese Christian Church of Thousand Oaks. On this Saturday evening, there was not a seat left in the sanctuary. The Changs had jumped at the opportunity to tell others of their Christianity during the special two-hour service honoring Michael. As Chang, his father, and his mother, Betty, took turns speaking, a man from the church stood beside them, translating Joe's and Michael's English into Chinese and Betty's Chinese into English.

The congregation cheered loudly when Michael got up from his seat in the front row of the church and strode to the pulpit. He spoke softly, careful, at first, not to look anyone in the eye.

"If there are any of you who don't know me, my name is Michael Chang," he said. "I'm 17 years old, and I'm a professional tennis player."

With building rhythms, he walked his audience through a list of his recent accomplishments, asking them to consider the force behind each victory.

Was it just coincidence, he asked, that on a day when he was suffering from severe cramps he had beaten the No. 1 player in the world? Was it just coincidence that he had come from behind to defeat Ronald Agenor later in the tournament? And was it coincidental that he'd come from behind yet again to defeat Stefan Edberg?

"Come on, let's face reality. Those weren't coincidences," he said to loud applause. "That wasn't me playing out there. Jesus Christ is alive and well."

Baptized 17 months ago--about a year after he joined the pro tennis tour--Chang told the churchgoers he had been inspired to read the Bible by a sermon he heard.

"I decided to see what the Bible said about friendship and love," he said, and when he discovered insights there, he kept reading. "Now, I'm 17," he added, "and I understand."

Michael and his parents attend the Chinese Christian Church when he isn't traveling, despite the 160-mile roundtrip from Placentia to Thousand Oaks. It is the family church--Chang's grandfather was a founding member.

Chang pursues his faith with fervor, sometimes to mixed results. At the French Open, moments after his greatest tennis triumph, Chang accepted his trophy in the box of Philippe Chatrier, president of the International Tennis Federation, and thanked God for his victory. Scattered boos were heard.

Chang simply plowed on, undaunted. Professions of faith in the winner's corner may "annoy" people, he says, "but to me, it's the truth," a steadying force amid the pressures of his life. He attends occasional Bible study classes on the road, prays before meals, frequently pulls a Bible from his workout bag and reads between matches.

His religion, he says, has helped him make sense of the events he sees in the world around him. It's also given him a framework for answering more personal questions--sorting out his purpose in life. "You sort of wonder about the things that happen in the world, like in China. . . . And then you sort of wonder what would happen if this world were perfect. No evil. Everything good. You're sort of curious."

One thing he is particularly curious about is his own success. "You think there are reasons for it," he says softly, "then you just wonder. It's just like a person gets cancer and says 'Why me?' Well, you don't know why."

But, he continues, "God has an idea for me, I think--to spread his word through tennis. I realized God gave me talent at this young age. It is what enables me to make contact with the world.

"Evangelist with a racket, that's pretty much it. "

MICHAEL CHANG began playing tennis when he was 6 years old, first engaged and then engulfed in a game that was his father's passion. Ever since, his dad has been the primary influence on his game and his career--the major architect of an 11-year effort to develop and then market the product that is Michael Chang. I am matching Michael's needs with the needs and hungers of the public, Joe Chang says.

Chang, a research chemist who develops products for Unocal, fled China and its revolution in 1948, going first to Taiwan, then emigrating to the United States in 1966. He met and married Betty Tung in 1966 when he was a graduate student in New Jersey and she was going to college in New York. Betty was born in India, the child of a Chinese diplomat, and came to the United States when she was 11. The couple's first son, Carl, was born in Hoboken, N.J., in 1969; Michael was born in 1972.

In 1974, the family moved to St. Paul, Minn., so Joe could take a job with 3M, but Joe will always remember that year as the beginning of his tennis addiction. "I got hooked," he says. "I read all the books and the magazines and played all the time. I spent so much time on the tennis courts, my wife finally asked me, 'Why not take the kids out?' And that changed our whole lives."

Michael began playing in 1978, and by 1979, the whole family was so involved in the sport that Joe decided to move the family to La Costa, near San Diego, so the boys could play year-round. "That was when we really wanted to develop their tennis," he says. "They were so good already. We played Tuesday through Friday, took Mondays off, and played in tournaments on the weekends." The Changs skipped the traditional route into youth tennis--tennis camps and coaches--playing, instead, among themselves, round-robin games in hour-and-a-half sessions on weekdays. They took on non-family competition on the weekends. That set Michael apart from his peers, whom he'd meet on the court but otherwise have few opportunities to get to know.

Michael won his first tournament, at the tennis complex in San Diego's Balboa Park, at age 7, and though both of the boys steadily worked their way up through the rankings, it was clear early on that the younger son would be the family prodigy. Over the years, Joe brought in and dismissed a series of coaches--Phil Dent, Roy Emerson, Dennis Ralston, Ian Russell, Pancho Segura--never relinquishing his role as Michael's primary trainer. He keeps detailed graphs and flow charts monitoring Michael's progress and sees himself in the role of information gatherer, gleaning knowledge from the experts and passing it on to his son.

In 1985, Joe refinanced the Changs' house to cover the costs of travel and training. Betty arranged her household duties to free the weekends for her sons' tennis matches. While Michael kept performing, kept advancing, he clearly felt the pressure of his family's intense focus on his development. "If I said forget it (about tennis)," he told World Tennis magazine in an interview cited by critics of his father's role in his career, "my dad would be incredibly mad. Just looking at the way my parents and my brother have helped me, you want to give something back by working hard, showing that you care and that your parents didn't waste $100,000 for you to screw around. This is a family thing."

When Reebok offered 16-year-old Michael a multi-million dollar contract to turn pro in February, 1988, he quit high school, got a GED certificate and hit the circuit.

Betty Chang, a smiling, gregarious woman, says hers is an egalitarian family in which everyone has a say at round-table family councils. It is there that decisions are made by consensus, she says, not imposed by her or her husband. The decision to let Michael turn pro, says Joe, was an easy one.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "He was mature enough. And even if he wasn't mature enough, the money and the opportunity they were giving us were too good."

Today, Michael's endorsements alone exceed $1 million annually, which means at the age of 17, Chang is a millionaire without even picking up a racket. In addition to Reebok clothes and shoes, he endorses Prince tennis rackets, Yale locks and such products as ceiling fans, security systems and noodles. His earnings put him fifth on the Grand Prix prize money list this year with $387,412, his career winnings $556,646, and many expect him to finish the year as the youngest male player to earn $1-million in prize money.

But critics wonder about the costs of Michael's close--and binding--family ties. Tennis legend Segura, 68, the pro at La Costa Hotel and Spa, coached Michael part-time when the Changs lived nearby. He praises Chang's mentally toughnessbut worries that the teen-ager isn't allowed to use it.

"A boy should be able to make decisions for himself, like he does on the tennis court," Segura says. "God forbid anything should happen to those parents. We have to respect our parents, we love them, but we got to be men."

Unlike his brother, a junior at Berkeley, Michael won't be attending college--at least for a while ("Maybe when I'm 40," he says.) That decision, too, has the blessing of his parents. "Kids these days don't go to college to learn something, they go just to get a degree so they can make a living," Joe reasons. "But getting a degree and getting an education are two different things. If Michael really wants to develop the knowledge he thinks he needs, then he can go to college in five years. By then he'll know what he wants to do after tennis. He is taking this direction so he can get financial independence. In 10 years, he will be financially set. He can go to college anytime later."

On the road, Michael is insulated from the demands of ordinary life by his mother, whom he describes as a friend. She's a dominant force: Betty Chang even took over the kitchen of a London hotel to prepare Michael's meals.

Michael insists that he didn't miss much by dropping out of school, that he simply matured early and made his career choices before other people did. But he does lag in some of the experiences common to other teen-agers: Driving. Dating. Hanging out. When Johnny Carson asked him to describe the logistics of his last date--"Did she drive? How did you get where you were going?"--a chagrined Michael Chang told the amused audience: "My parents came with us."

IN THE youth movement of sports, the pressure to succeed is tremendous and athletes sometimes find that early success is fleeting. The term used to describe such a condition is burnout, but psychologist Jim Loehr, director of sports science for the United States Tennis Assn., thinks Michael Chang will not flame out early. "When you take a young player and catapult him into stardom, in tennis particularly," says Loehr, "(he goes) from childhood directly into adulthood. There are many adolescents who are not ready for that.

"Michael Chang is truly the exception. From a psychological perspective, I see him as really a great role model for young kids, perhaps one of the best all-time."

Lots of people hope Loehr is right. When Chang won in Paris, Reebok ran full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today and the Boston Globe celebrating his victory (and that of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, another 17-year-old company representative). The ad said: "Some kids go to Paris to study history, others go to make it." Reebok's Chester Wheeler, director of sports marketing, is thinking of an encore: "Our next idea," he says, "is that he win the U. S. Open."

Michael, says Joe Chang, has a slightly less lofty goal: to do better at the Open than he did last year, when he lost in the round of 16. To that end, says his coach, Chang will play the three hard-court tour competitions that precede the tournament, then go to New York a week early. "He takes a one-week rest, then, based on how he does in the three tournaments, we go through certain drills--the strokes, the serve, the strategy. Typically, he drills two hours in the morning, takes a three-mile run, then he plays a match in the afternoon. We want to build a pattern, a routine that is similar to the tournament schedule.

"I don't think he can go in thinking he will win," says the most talkative Chang. "It's a long two weeks, and everything has to be just right to win a Grand Slam. Most of all, he will need a lot of luck."

Michael himself, on media day back in Placentia, grappled with the question of luck, fortune, fate. "You think about the world. You think 'Why is there life on this world? There's got to be a reason for it. Otherwise, you just live and die . . . as if your life were nothing."

"You wonder why all these things happen. You just wonder about things."

He tries not to rush himself or to think much about how soon he'll achieve his goal of being the best tennis player in the world: "I really don't think of it that way because I don't want to put pressure on myself." Facing the pressure to be the American Tennis Hero, to live up to what even he might call a miracle in Paris, Chang ventures his fall-back position, the part of his preparation that considers defeat as well as victory: "I think there will be times when maybe I won't be doing so well and I'm sure people will be saying, 'Now where is your Jesus Christ?'

"For me, I feel as if being a Christian I have a job to do on this earth and that's my first priority--to get that job done. You can't win all the time. You can only do as much as you are made to do."

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