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Chang's Game Is Classical : Young Tennis Star Fights to Remain Relaxed on Court

May 12, 1987|CHRIS DE LUCA

ENCINITAS — When Larry Mulvania, San Dieguito High School's tennis coach, compares freshman Michael Chang to others, he doesn't mention such tennis stars as Boris Becker or Ivan Lendl.

Instead, Mulvania places Chang, the only player ever to win a San Diego Section high school tennis title as an eighth-grader, in the company of Mozart and Beethoven.

Mulvania's comparison of Chang, 14, to the classical composers is based on the tennis player's amazing talent at such an early age.

But he is different from most prodigies. How many other players would consider playing in the section tennis finals to be fun and relaxing? Or would rather talk to classmates about girls and ignore tennis almost entirely?

But such behavior helps Chang elude tennis burnout, which afflicts many young players. When talking with friends and classmates, Chang says, he avoids the topic of tennis.

"In school, I like to keep tennis as low-profile as possible," said Chang, who has a 3.6 grade-point average. "Whenever anyone brings up tennis, I won't want to talk about it. I just don't like talking about tennis around my friends."

The threat of burnout is sometimes a side effect of achieving success at an early age, according to Arnold Beisser, a sports psychologist and professor in the UCLA department of psychiatry.

Beisser, author of "Madness in Sports," a book that discusses athletes and the problems they face, said avoiding burnout begins with the young athlete weighing the importance of the sport against the normal aspects of childhood.

"It depends on how the person views the activity," Beisser said. "Some young people view it in a very positive light. Others may view it as a painful, punishing experience. Much depends on the individual's degree of maturation and social environment."

Joe Chang, Michael's father and coach, said he is aware of the potential for burnout.

"It is difficult to say what the reason is for burning out," said Joe Chang, a chemist. "It's a question, and it depends on how we handle the situation. That's why we try to play as few tournaments as possible."

Chang has managed to do well without the aid of a big-name coach. His accomplishments include:

--Winning the 18-and-under Fiesta Bowl national championship in 1986.

--Winning several major Southern California junior tournaments during the past five years, usually playing in higher age groups.

--Back-to-back victories (for 12- and 14-year-olds) at the Goofy Games, a world championship sponsored by Disneyland.

--Becoming the only player of Chinese descent to win the 18-and-under Taipei Junior National championships in Taiwan.

Chang said tennis can become overbearing at times. He practices a couple of hours nearly every weekday and plays in tournaments on weekends.

Andrea Jaeger can attest to the difficulty of burnout among young tennis players. Jaeger, who achieved professional stardom at 14, took a rest from the sport after suffering shoulder and neck injuries in early 1985.

In a telephone interview from Largo, Fla., she said she also was approaching tennis burnout at the same time. She said that a player of Chang's caliber faces added stress with each step up success' ladder.

Jaeger's older sister Suzy helped her to develop her game much the way Chang's brother Carl, 18, his teammate and doubles partner, does. Jaeger said dealing with stress sometimes means forgetting about tennis for a while.

"Tennis is an individual sport, and the ups and downs are individual," said Jaeger, who is still battling a shoulder injury. "When I was in high school, I tried to do everything, playing soccer and baseball, and not just tennis. Otherwise, you'll look back and say, 'Geez, all I did was play tennis,' and you really don't have any cool memories."

Chang agrees that time away from tennis is important.

"That's what's good about our schedule," he said. "See, when we (he and Carl) are burnt out, we can take off for a while and it won't matter. We can just miss a week of practice and not say anything.

"Usually I recover after that. I just relax at home and watch TV and talk to girls and stuff like that."

He prefers to be known by his classmates for more than just as a kid who plays tennis.

But high school tennis is also a way for Chang to escape the pressure of the big tournaments. He was able to join the San Dieguito varsity team last year while still in eighth grade at Oakcrest Junior High because he was enrolled in an algebra class at San Dieguito.

Carl urged his brother to play high school tennis because it would give the two more time to play together. It would also allow them to relax with their tennis.

"The caliber of high school tennis is low," Carl said. "I found high school tennis to be relaxing and fun."

Said Michael Chang: "It's always nice to be on the same team as your brother. We have fun and he's great. He'll be going off to college (California on a tennis scholarship) next year.

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