Every so often, Michael Chang will pop in a video and relive the 4 1/2 hours that define his career: a victory over Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open.
“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?’ ”
That sums up what was on everyone’s mind when Chang overcame a two-set deficit and dehydration to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history. He went on to win that French Open at 17, still the record for youngest male champion at a Grand Slam tournament.
Now 31, Chang is preparing to play on Roland Garros’ red clay for the final time. He’s retiring after the U.S. Open.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to do the daily grind, to put in all the work hours day in and day out,” Chang said. “The tour is getting tougher and tougher.”
Playing a limited schedule, he has 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. Yes, that John McEnroe.
Chang face faces Frenchman Fabrice Santoro in the first round. The biggest question heading into the draw was whether defending champion Serena Williams and her sister, Venus, would be on the same half of the women’s bracket. That would end any chance of a fifth straight major final between them.
When the siblings were ranked Nos. 1 and 2, they couldn’t meet earlier than the title match. But with Serena atop the rankings and Venus now third, the random draw could set up an all-Williams semifinal. Kim Clijsters has moved up to second, with fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne fourth.
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 wasn’t seeded at all, and his record in Grand Slam tournaments has been rocky recently. He hasn’t been past the third round of a major since the 1997 U.S Open.
Indeed, his 1989 French Open title was his last at one of the big four events (he lost three other Grand Slam finals).
What a triumph that was, though. He beat Pete Sampras in the second round and Stefan Edberg in the final, and what always will stand out is the 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 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, battling leg cramps so painful he didn’t sit during changeovers.
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.
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, 160-pound 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 the 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, Fla., in March. “He has never once not shown up with everything he’s had.”
French Open Facts
* When: Monday-June 8.
* Where: Roland Garros in Paris.
* Last year: Men, Albert Costa beats fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, 6-1, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 to win his first Grand Slam; Women, Serena Williams beats older sister Venus, 7-5, 6-3, to claim her first French Open title.
* Top seeds: Men, 1. Lleyton Hewitt, Australia; 2. Andre Agassi; 3. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Spain; 4. Carlos Moya, Spain; 5. Roger Federer, Switzerland; 6. Andy Roddick, 7. Guillermo Coria, Argentina; 8. David Nalbandian, Argentina. Women, 1. Serena Williams, 2. Kim Clijsters, Belgium, 3. Venus Williams, 4. Justine Henin-Hardenne, Belgium, 5. Amelie Mauresmo, France, 6. Lindsay Davenport, 7. Jennifer Capriati, 8. Chanda Rubin.