Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chang Inducted to Hall of Fame

Above:  The Reebok pump shoe. Chang's Reebok ad slams Nike and "those rock and roll" tennis guys. Hmm wonder who that referred to? 

Chang was inducted into the Hall of Fame today. It made at least one blogger scratch his head and wonder why. Sean Randall wants to know why Thomas Muster and Sergi Brugera aren't in the Hall. He suggests any player who achieves the number 1 ranking should be eligible, then lays out his other criteria. I disagree with the kind of guidelines he advocates, where achieving a numerical benchmark garners entry. There are players who reached the top ranking who shouldn't be considered, like Marcelo Rios. (We agree on Muster, he should be in, but Brugera never had success on other surfaces and had neither the longevity nor the non-French achievements that Chang does. I believe a credible argument can be made in favor of Michael Stich and Juan Carlos Ferrerro, but there again, where is the consistency?? Part of the equation here needs to be not just how much you win, but how long you do it, the way you do it and and when you do it:  coming up with clutch victories in the most difficult and important circumstances ought to factor prominently. Venus Williams, for example, doesn't win a lot of titles. She just wins the big ones)

Statistics don't tell the only story. On longevity, accomplishment and degree of difficulty of the competition, I think Chang deserves this honor. I don't think Chang got in because he is American, or because he spurred tennis in Asia, as Tennis-X suggests. I think he got in because in addition to his French Open victory, he was near the top for an extended period of time in an era with many more outstanding players than there are now. Bud Collins writing for the Boston Globe said:
Perpetual motion personified, making few mistakes, swift 5-foot-9-inch Chang was a finalist in three other majors: 1995 French to Thomas Muster; 1996 Australian to Boris Becker; 1996 US to Sampras. He won 34 singles titles, among them the 1998 US Pro at Longwood, and 662 matches, batting .680. He inhabited the top 10 seven times, No. 2 in 1996, No. 3 the following year.
He may have gotten credit for being part of the greatest generation of American players, and I don't see what's wrong with that. That generation of players was among the greatest historically too. His fellow competitor, Pete Sampras, said "That little guy, Michael, inspired the rest of us. He was the first to win a big one, and we thought if he can do it, so can we."

Although Chang rarely played Davis Cup, he was part of one of the greatest American victories during the 1990 semifinal against Austria. Chang earned a place in Davis Cup lore by rallying from two sets to love down to Horst Skoff, in the face of 18,000 screaming fans, to win the fifth and deciding match in five sets. Again, Bud Collins:
Locked at 2-2 in a semifinal, the US seemed out of it as Chang lost the first two sets to Horst Skoff. "I didn't expect to play," Chang recalls. "We figured Andre [Agassi] would clinch in the fourth match by beating Muster. Didn't happen."
Trapped, he managed to win the third set before darkness intervened.

Maybe he could credit Alexander Graham Bell with the decisive triumph. Having watched the match on TV at home in California, brother Carl Chang, his coach, phoned Michael, calming him and outlining the winning strategy. That 3-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 result made Michael merely the second American to win the decisive fifth match from two sets down. The other was Don Budge over Germany's Gottfried von Cramm in the 1937 semis.
The US went on to win the Davis Cup that year. 

Chang was presented into the Hall by his brother Carl, who acted as coach for much of his career. That was fitting, because Chang was never really a part of the greater tennis scene. He wasn't the type with buddies or close friends on tour.  He and his family stayed away, focused on faith. Chang, who is finally giving up bachelorhood, was true to form in his speech, focusing primarily on family and faith.

In my youth, I had the opportunity to watch many a Chang match at the Cincinnati Masters. In his 16 consecutive appearances, he made four straight finals, won twice and is second in total matches won in the Queen City, to Stefan Edberg. I was there the day Stefan Edberg took revenge on Chang for that French Open final, beating Chang to become the no. 1 player in the world. I watched Chang jump rope for twenty minutes on the practice court just to warm up. The year Monica Seles was stabbed, when all the players were on guard against psycho fans, I saw Chang embrace a crazy lady who ran onto the practice court to give him a hug, waiting patiently for security. I remember thrilling night matches against Rafter and Andre. Once I saw Carl Chang preparing Michael to face someone's kick serve - possibly Patrick Rafter's- by standing inside the service box to create shoulder-high serves for Chang to take a whack at. In 1992 my brother and I briefly met equally diminutive boxer Tim Lewis, the bronze medalist, who was on his way to meet Michael. He was a constant in those night matches, electrifying the crowd with his effort on every point. 

Chang is playing on Courier's Champions Tour, taking seminary classes and working with players in China and the US. He was a proponent of the Beijing Olympics and acted as an official ambassador. I bet he will be there carrying the Olympic Torch around the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies. 

For my thoughts on how exciting a player he was, why he was a better player than Lleyton Hewitt and what Chang's experience could mean for Rafa Nadal, review my January post on Chang.

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