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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

In 1974, the family moved to St. Paul, Minn., so Joe could take a job with 3M, but Joe will always remember that year as the beginning of his tennis addiction. "I got hooked," he says. "I read all the books and the magazines and played all the time. I spent so much time on the tennis courts, my wife finally asked me, 'Why not take the kids out?' And that changed our whole lives."

Michael began playing in 1978, and by 1979, the whole family was so involved in the sport that Joe decided to move the family to La Costa, near San Diego, so the boys could play year-round. "That was when we really wanted to develop their tennis," he says. "They were so good already. We played Tuesday through Friday, took Mondays off, and played in tournaments on the weekends." The Changs skipped the traditional route into youth tennis--tennis camps and coaches--playing, instead, among themselves, round-robin games in hour-and-a-half sessions on weekdays. They took on non-family competition on the weekends. That set Michael apart from his peers, whom he'd meet on the court but otherwise have few opportunities to get to know.

Michael won his first tournament, at the tennis complex in San Diego's Balboa Park, at age 7, and though both of the boys steadily worked their way up through the rankings, it was clear early on that the younger son would be the family prodigy. Over the years, Joe brought in and dismissed a series of coaches--Phil Dent, Roy Emerson, Dennis Ralston, Ian Russell, Pancho Segura--never relinquishing his role as Michael's primary trainer. He keeps detailed graphs and flow charts monitoring Michael's progress and sees himself in the role of information gatherer, gleaning knowledge from the experts and passing it on to his son.

In 1985, Joe refinanced the Changs' house to cover the costs of travel and training. Betty arranged her household duties to free the weekends for her sons' tennis matches. While Michael kept performing, kept advancing, he clearly felt the pressure of his family's intense focus on his development. "If I said forget it (about tennis)," he told World Tennis magazine in an interview cited by critics of his father's role in his career, "my dad would be incredibly mad. Just looking at the way my parents and my brother have helped me, you want to give something back by working hard, showing that you care and that your parents didn't waste $100,000 for you to screw around. This is a family thing."

When Reebok offered 16-year-old Michael a multi-million dollar contract to turn pro in February, 1988, he quit high school, got a GED certificate and hit the circuit.

Betty Chang, a smiling, gregarious woman, says hers is an egalitarian family in which everyone has a say at round-table family councils. It is there that decisions are made by consensus, she says, not imposed by her or her husband. The decision to let Michael turn pro, says Joe, was an easy one.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "He was mature enough. And even if he wasn't mature enough, the money and the opportunity they were giving us were too good."

Today, Michael's endorsements alone exceed $1 million annually, which means at the age of 17, Chang is a millionaire without even picking up a racket. In addition to Reebok clothes and shoes, he endorses Prince tennis rackets, Yale locks and such products as ceiling fans, security systems and noodles. His earnings put him fifth on the Grand Prix prize money list this year with $387,412, his career winnings $556,646, and many expect him to finish the year as the youngest male player to earn $1-million in prize money.

But critics wonder about the costs of Michael's close--and binding--family ties. Tennis legend Segura, 68, the pro at La Costa Hotel and Spa, coached Michael part-time when the Changs lived nearby. He praises Chang's mentally toughnessbut worries that the teen-ager isn't allowed to use it.

"A boy should be able to make decisions for himself, like he does on the tennis court," Segura says. "God forbid anything should happen to those parents. We have to respect our parents, we love them, but we got to be men."

Unlike his brother, a junior at Berkeley, Michael won't be attending college--at least for a while ("Maybe when I'm 40," he says.) That decision, too, has the blessing of his parents. "Kids these days don't go to college to learn something, they go just to get a degree so they can make a living," Joe reasons. "But getting a degree and getting an education are two different things. If Michael really wants to develop the knowledge he thinks he needs, then he can go to college in five years. By then he'll know what he wants to do after tennis. He is taking this direction so he can get financial independence. In 10 years, he will be financially set. He can go to college anytime later."

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