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BOY WONDER : Michael Chang Has Found God And a Seven-Figure Income. Now All He Needs is Another Big Tennis Win.

August 27, 1989|THOMAS BONK | Thomas Bonk covers tennis for The Times

THERE HASN'T been a real American Tennis Hero since 1985, the last time an American man ranked No. 1 on the computer, or maybe 1984, the last time an American male took a Grand Slam title and the last time America made it to the finals in the prestigious international Davis Cup competition. No one has quite fit the bill. Not Ivan Lendl, who only lives in America. Not John McEnroe, who used to be the best. And not Andre Agassi, who looked like he could be the best . . . last year.

Then in June, Michael Chang, a teen-ager from Placentia, stunned everyone (including himself) with a victory at the French Open, and the search for an American Tennis Hero suddenly took the form of a question: Is this any job for a shy, quiet, 134-pound, 5-foot, 8-inch Chinese-American 17-year-old with cropped black hair, a "born-again" victory speech, a dad for a coach and a serve your mother could return?

Until his success at the French, Michael Chang had been nothing more than a standard-bearer for the most overworked word in U.S. men's tennis: potential. Like a string of prodigies from Tracy Austin to Aaron Krickstein, he had frequently been the youngest high achiever at every level. He had been the youngest player to win a match at the U.S. Open in 1987 (when he was 15); the youngest to win the U.S. Junior National Championships (when he was 15 1/2); the youngest to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 60 years (in 1988); the youngest to play on a U.S. Davis Cup team in 61 years (against Paraguay, last January).

And then came Paris, where Chang delivered on that much-vaunted potential. On the red clay at Stade Roland Garros, he became the youngest man ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. His was the first triumph by a U.S. men's player in Paris in 34 years.

Now he must prove that he's not just a flash in the pan, a one-event Boy Wonder. So far it hasn't been easy. He played respectably on the grass courts of Wimbledon, where a big serve is an advantage, making it to the round of 16. But in two recent outings on hard courts, the surface Chang grew up on, he lost early against players at the bottom of the computer rankings. Starting tomorrow in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., he has another chance to live up to his potential. All he has to do is win the U.S. Open.

DEEP DOWN inside, beneath a sort-of-cool, sort-of-not exterior, Michael Chang feels utterly ordinary. He lives, after all, in his parents' tract house in Placentia. He likes his mom and dad, who are not just his parents but also partners in his tennis career. His high school counselor says he got good grades; he likes to fish; he gets an allowance; he's eager to get his driver's license. But Michael Chang is also extraordinary, even without the Grand Slam title. He attended high school all of two days a week his sophomore year and dropped out at 15. His allowance, reported to be $100 a month, comes out of a million-dollar-plus annual income. Last year, his first as a professsional tennis player, he played in 15 tournaments, traveling the world, albeit with his mother as chaperone. And then there's all the attention.

On this day, the neighborhood calm along the trim streets bordering Placentia's Alta Vista golf course has been replaced by the buzz of a media event. A string of reporters and technicians makes its way to the Changs' home. A television magazine crew camps out in the dining room, cables crawl along the carpet, and hot lights shine in every direction. Outside, a black stretch limousine waits to take Chang to the NBC studios in Burbank and a guest appearance on The Tonight Show.

After finishing his television interview, but before he gets into the limo, Chang poses for more pictures for a magazine article. In the midst of all this, he finds time to talk with one more reporter asking yet another series of questions about why he's so good, about why he won in Paris. This is not Chang's favorite leisure activity--he'd rather be bass fishing--but he endures it pretty well. Fame has arrived at Michael Chang's door, and he seems to have been expecting it. "It doesn't totally bother me or anything," he says. "In a way, it's been coming on little by little, so I'm getting used to it. It's not like it's taking me apart or anything. It's definitely part of being a professional tennis player."

He answers questions in as few words as possible. How has his life changed since he won the French, rocketed from No. 23 to No. 5 in the world rankings and added $290,752 to this year's income?

"Well," he says, with no trace of sarcasm, "I'm richer."

But when the questions turn toward what he is really, really like, Chang gets uncomfortable. His already laconic style grinds to a halt.

"You know, that's kind of hard to say--how you really are," Chang offers. "Ask somebody else."

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