In June 1989, a 17-year-old Californian named Michael Chang defeated Stefan Edberg in the French Open final to become the youngest men’s Grand Slam champion in history. I was 11 that spring, and I woke up early every morning to catch the live broadcasts before heading off to my tennis lessons—one of countless Chinese-Americans who exchanged his graphing calculator for a racket after watching Chang slay one Goliath after another.
Well, that’s how the story’s supposed to go. The truth is, I was rooting for Edberg. But the myth of Chang as every Asian’s tennis hero is a persistent one that will grow stronger after his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this month. The platitudes began this January, when the inductees were announced, and are nicely paraphrased by the Seattle Weekly, which characterized Chang as a “breakthrough figure for Asian Americans” and someone who disproved the stereotype of “dweeby Asian kids on the chess team or math club and their SAT scores. Chang was tough, and a great example to all the kids who have since followed him onto the court.”
The person most responsible for my interest in tennis was not Chang but my fifth-grade classmate Brynne Stevens. My family didn’t belong to the Fort Douglas Country Club or own horses, but I figured that playing her sport might make her notice me. (It didn’t.) After Brynne, it was Edberg. And after Edberg, Pete Sampras. It was never Chang, who actually did more to reinforce stereotypes about Chinese people than to dispel them.
Even if you allow that Chang influenced Chinese-Americans to participate in sports beyond the Academic Decathlon, he still shackled us with another stereotype. Thanks to him, we were all seen as determined counterpunchers, tireless tongue-lolling retrievers who compensated for our lack of physical gifts by outlasting our opponents because we couldn’t outplay them.
Before Chang, we were free to dream about becoming Boris Becker, that Teutonic badass who strutted around the baseline, blasting aces, or Edberg, the square-jawed Swede with a stylish attacking game and a hot blond girlfriend. Now we were stuck with the introverted, 5-foot-9 (on his best day) Chang, a devout Christian with a cream-puff serve who scrapped his way to the French Open title with borderline bush-league tricks (moonballing, crowding the service line on returns, the instantly legendary underhand serve). Worst of all, his dragon-lady mother once stuck her hand down his shorts after a practice to check if they were wet. At the Junior Davis Cup! In front of his friends! After Becker retired, he impregnated a woman in a restaurant’s cleaning closet; when Chang hung up his sticks, he studied theology at Biola University.
Chang didn’t defy Chinese stereotypes; he simply ushered them into the arena. He was hardworking, intelligent, humble, forever prepubescent. His parents, Joe and Betty, were research chemists. His older brother, Carl, went to Berkeley. When the boys were young, Joe, in what seems to me to be classic Chinese cheapskate fashion, scrimped by taking notes during Carl’s lessons so that he could replicate them for Michael afterward.
Michael was a junior national champion at 15. He won his first tour event at 16, his first Slam at 17. He was, in short, a prodigy, cocooned by his family, which became known on tour as the Chang Gang. Mother Betty, radiating overprotectiveness, chaperoned him. Joe handled the finances, Carl coached him. They kept to themselves, which struck others as insular and struck me as very, very Chinese.
As a junior player, I insisted on being as un-Chang-like as possible, hitting one-handed backhands and rushing the net. It worked: Unlike Michael Chang, I lost a lot. My coaches pleaded with me to put two hands on my backhand, stay on the baseline, and stop trying to hit fancy shots. But as long as kids at local tournaments would tell me that I looked like Chang (it had been Bruce Lee, before) or assume I knew him personally (I did not), I refused. The expectations weren’t just from white people. When my parents’ friends learned that I liked tennis, they invariably said something like, “Wah, maybe you can be the next Chang Depei!” They always used his Chinese name: “cultivated virtue,” roughly. Diminutive as Chang’s shadow was, it was hard to escape.
At 14, I was given a Chang poster and put it up in my room, thinking I’d give him a chance. But whenever I looked at it, I saw everything I thought Chinese people should transcend. Chang had none of Sampras’ virtuosity or Andre Agassi’s flair or Jim Courier’s dude-ness. He was polite but not personable, wholesome but not quite all-American. Though he was considered a good sport, he never won a sportsmanship award as a junior or professional.
It wasn’t his fault that he became the measuring stick for Chinese-American tennis players. He’s by all accounts a nice guy who gives generously to his causes—primarily Christian outreach and developing Chinese tennis. But since he was the only one out there, people couldn’t help making comparisons. For all his supposed impact on Chinese-American tennis, however, Chang remains more an anomaly than a harbinger. There hasn’t been a single Chinese-American man in the top 50 since his meteoric rise. One promising player, Tommy Ho, a year younger, three inches taller, and even more precocious (he supplanted Chang as the youngest man to play a U.S. Open match), never cracked the top 80 and retired at 24 due to back problems.
When Chang stalled in the rankings, unable to get over the final hump, he attempted to transform himself from a grinder to a power player. To great fanfare, he had his racket company, Prince, design a stick that was one inch longer than the industry standard. It improved his serving angle but also reminded everyone that Chinese guys had to compensate for genetic shortcomings besides our height. Where did Prince add that inch of length? To the shaft, naturally.
The racket propelled him to three more Slam finals (he lost all of them), and a career-high No. 2 ranking, but it was also part of his undoing. His body, already pushed to its limits, wasn’t meant to bulk up. The former champ began to break down, and he never fully recovered from knee and wrist injuries suffered in 1998. Unlike Agassi, who in midcareer descended into the lower tiers and rose again as an elite player, there was no resurrection for Chang. During his 10-tournament farewell tour in 2003, he won two ATP matches.
I saw Chang play in person once, at the 2002 Legg Mason tournament in Washington, D.C. Deep into the twilight of his career, his legs still bulged but had no spring, and he lost in the second round to an anonymous Frenchman. Meanwhile, a Thai named Paradorn Srichaphan powered into the final. At 6-foot-2 and with the broad-shouldered musculature of a kickboxer, he was the anti-Chang I once dreamed of becoming, boasting howitzers off both wings, including a mighty one-handed backhand. He would reach No. 9 in the world before missing 2007 with a wrist injury, but it wasn’t a total loss. That year he married Natalie Glebova, a former Miss Universe. Until Srichaphan, I’d almost stopped believing that an Asian could be that kind of player. So imagine my surprise when I learned that his childhood inspiration was Michael Chang.
Srichaphan came along too late to make a difference in my junior career, if you could call a whole bunch of first- and second-round exits a career. By that point, I’d long stopped believing that a convoluted and highly improbable series of events would land me in the main draw of a Grand Slam. But I had found a new favorite player—an Asian one, at that. And for that, I’m finally grateful to Michael Chang.