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Volume 22 No. 35
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Closing Shot: ‘God wanted me to win’

Michael Chang recalls his surprising win at the 1989 French Open and why he thinks divine intervention kept him playing while his body told him to stop
No one, not even his father, believed Michael Chang would win the 1989 French Open.
Photo: getty images

Thirty years ago, a 17-year-old Chinese American, Michael Chang, out of the blue won the French Open, serving underhanded at one point while severely cramping in knocking out world No. 1 Ivan Lendl in the fourth round along the way.

But it was the backdrop of his championship many forget, the crushing of the political uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the victims of which Chang dedicated his victory while accepting the trophy on the picturesque red clay in Paris. It was a moment in time when an unexpected sports triumph intersected with a historic event. And Chang doesn’t believe it just happened that way but instead took divine intervention.

“I have often told people that I often feel in my heart that it was the tournament that I felt God wanted me to win, not necessarily for myself but just to put a smile upon Chinese people’s faces around the world during which there wasn’t a whole lot to smile about,” he said.

“I think it took their mind off of what was happening over there even if just for a moment. I don’t  think it was by coincidence that the French Open that year was won in the fashion and in the manner in which it was won. I just think it can’t be by coincidence that all those things happened in Beijing exactly during that period of time.”

The authoritarian response to the uprising began to unfold over the middle weekend of the tournament. When he wasn’t practicing or playing, Chang stayed in his room watching the news.

In that fourth-round encounter Chang actually started walking toward the chair umpire to default at 2-1 in the fifth set. And then, Chang recalled, “I had just an incredible conviction of heart; it was almost as if God stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘Michael, what are you doing?’”

Chang would famously serve underhand because his cramping was so bad, a tactic he said he never tried before or after.

His father did not witness the comeback. “My mom was kind of like, ‘Why are you going back now, you know he is going to play Lendl?’” Chang recounted. “He was just like, ‘Well, I need to get back to work; Michael is probably not going to win that match.’”

Chang is still involved in the game through coaching, tutoring Kei Nishikori, ranked No. 7 in the world. Has Nishikori ever tried the underhand serve? Chang laughed at the suggestion. “I don’t know if you have ever seen Kei do it in exhibitions,” he said, “but it hasn’t been a pretty sight.”