Chang holds court in Costa Mesa

COSTA MESA — Michael Chang grabbed the microphone and began to talk to teenagers about one of his greatest feats in tennis.

At 17 years, 3 months old, Chang became the youngest male to win a Grand Slam singles title.

The teenagers knew the event, the French Open. As for when Chang won it, not so much.

"That year for me in '89," Chang said before pausing. "Actually, none of you guys were born yet, huh? There's a reality check."

Chang drew laughter during the first day of his Michael Chang Tennis Classic on Friday. At 40, he can no longer play as he used to, but Chang can still captivate an audience.

Dozens of youngsters came to the Costa Mesa Tennis Center to meet and listen to Chang. He wasn't the only former champion holding court.

With the opening ceremony of the London Games getting underway on the same day, the Michael Chang Tennis Classic had a little Olympic flavor. Kaitlin Sandeno brought her gold, silver and bronze medals she won as a U.S. swimmer at the Sydney Games and Athens Games.

Chang was impressed with the bling. He competed in as many Olympics as Sandeno, but never earned a medal.

"I am so jealous of that right there," said Chang, while pointing at the medals on a table. "I am so jealous of Kaitlin. She's got to show that off. That is one of the coolest things."

Getting to meet and take a picture with Chang was cool to Jennifer Kingsley.

The incoming freshman at Newport Harbor High is in the tournament, which is raising money this year for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County.

Kingsley gets to compete in the tournament because it introduced a high school division in its second year.

"I knew who Michael Chang was, but he was famous before I was born," said Kingsley, adding that she felt inspired.

She needed a lift after she dropped her first match in the non-sanctioned United States Tennis Assn. tournament.

The three-day tournament also has matches at the Newport Beach Tennis Club, the Racquet Club of Irvine and the Palisades Tennis Club. Playing in tournaments is something Chang stressed.

"You guys work so hard in practice out there with your coaches and doing drills, all these different things to help you guys become better players," Chang said. "Tournaments really kind of give you a chance to take your exam so to speak. I think it actually helps you to become a much better player."

Chang's path to stardom began in tournament play as a junior.

His first national title came at the USTA Junior Hard Court singles as a 12-year-old. A year later, he claimed the Fiesta Bowl 16s title. The more he competed, the more he felt he could challenge the greats professionally.

The first chance to make noise at the French Open came as a 16-year-old. He remembers the time he met John McEnroe in the third round.

Of all courts, the match was on No. 1, intimidating Chang even more. He grew up watching McEnroe on TV. Now, he was facing the tennis legend.

"My biggest mistake was letting him walk out on the court first," Chang said. "It was a packed house. It was the match of the day out there. When he walks out on the court, the crowd just starts going nuts, because they like very emotional people, and John's actually a very emotional person on the tennis court.

"The first thing he does is, he [raises his arms] and the crowd goes absolutely nuts. I walk in after and I'm going like this [with my head down and arms at my side]. I'm 16 years old and it's so intimidating. I could not stop shaking for like two sets. I lost the first two sets, 6-0, 6-1, in like a blink of an eye. It wasn't until the third set that I started to kind of calm down and settle down a little bit."

Chang bounced back in his second French Open appearance.

The story is one that touched Kingsley. Chang never gave up after bowing out the previous year at the French Open.

Chang went on to win a tournament he said he shouldn't have. The unseeded Chang deserved it, getting past the top seed, Ivan Lendl, in the quarterfinals, and then the third seed, Stefan Edberg, in the final. Each of those matches against two tennis greats went five sets.

"I often tell people I feel like it was a tournament that God wanted me to win," Chang said. "The situation in Tiananmen [Square] actually happened the middle Sunday of the French Open [and] many thousands of people lost their lives in Beijing. At the end, I kind of felt like this is the tournament because I'm Chinese and God wanted me to win to be able to put a smile up on Chinese people's faces during a time when there wasn't a whole lot to smile about at the time."

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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