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JIM MURRAY

Relentlessly Is Only Way Chang Knows

March 09, 1995|JIM MURRAY

INDIAN WELLS — Baseball is not always Ruth-Gehrig or Griffey-Bonds. Football was not only Red Grange or Montana and Rice. Boxing was not all Dempsey-Tunney or Ali-Frazier. Basketball was not wholly Jordan and Magic and Bird. Golf was not only Nicklaus and Palmer, auto racing not only an Unser and an Andretti.

And tennis was not merely Budge-Perry, McEnroe-Connors, Tilden-Cochet. And it's not all Sampras-Agassi.

Tennis needs its Guy Forgets, Todd Martins, Alexander Volkovs, Thomas Musters and company. The seed-fillers. And it needs its Michael Chang.

You see, what makes any sport work is not only the superstar but the guy just below who keeps him honest. Ruth needed pitchers who made him concentrate. Willie Mays needed batters who could make him go get it. Affirmed needed Alydar. These guys are like character actors in movies. You recognize the face but true fame eludes them.

It would not be fair to dub Michael Chang what they call in boxing "strictly an opponent." He's more than that. He's no trial horse. He's almost the conscience of the game. He keeps you on edge. You can beat him. But it takes the "A" game. He's always right there in front of you pushing your game to the limit. Sometimes, superstars tend to try to win on the interest off their talent. Michael makes them dip into the capital.

He empties his account every game. As they would say in boxing, he fights you three minutes of every round. Until he's out of bullets. And he won't beat himself. You have to do it. He'll make you miss. He won't.

If he were a golfer, you'd say he has a good short game. In baseball, he'd find a way to beat you even if it had to be with bunts, steals, bases on balls or hitting behind the runners.

God probably made Pete Sampras a great tennis player--6 feet 2, 175 pounds, long-legged, long-armed, power in every move, a cannon for a serve.

Michael made Michael a tennis player. He had a lot less to work with at 5-9, 150. His asset was speed and brains. He is like a pitcher with junk stuff asked to get Frank Thomas out.

It is players like Michael who keep the game honest. Otherwise, the superstars would loaf through the seeds, go through the motions, win with a yawn.

Not with Michael across the net. It is like being locked in a closet with a hungry leopard. You better be prepared to go five furious sets--because he is. He may go down. But with flags flying and guns firing. He is tenacious, tireless. He is as dogged, undiscourageable as a guy selling insurance. It has been said that the road to any championship goes through Chang. Sometimes, you get so worn out, you are a patsy in your next match. Guys who avoid him in the draw want to throw a party. He once played in the longest U.S. Open match in history--5 hours 26 minutes against Stefan Edberg in 1992. He almost never goes quietly.

He won six tournaments last year and is ranked No. 4 in the world, a heady eminence for Chang.

I caught up with Michael at the Newsweek Champions Cup this week where tournament director Charlie Pasarell has put together a Little Wimbledon, a field the French Open might envy. Every able-bodied tennis player in the world is here, a draw so star-studded, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open winner (Edberg) is seeded 11th, to give you an idea.

Is Michael Chang satisfied with his role in history as a kind of permanent low-seed roadblock? A test, not an adversary? Would he be content with a career as No. 4?

Michael studied this as if it were a set point. "I'm satisfied with where I am today. I'm not a person who wants the spotlight all the time," he says gravely. "To be No. 1 means giving up a certain amount of yourself, of your privacy."

Still, he would never settle for the back of the bus. "If at the end of my career, I've given my best and ended up rated No. 6 or 4 or 2, or whatever, I would have no regrets. Still, I feel No. 1 is not outside the range of my capabilities. If you're No. 4, you work on being No. 3. If you're No. 2, you work on being No. 1."

He has been known as a baseline player, a long-distance scrambler who uses his speed to nullify the big guns of the tour. "I am working to improve my volleying and it's getting better," he tells you quietly. "I feel more comfortable at the net. My serving? Well, my first serves are in the 110-117 (m.p.h.) range. And getting stronger."

Playing from the baseline is like trying to win fights with jabs. It is a particularly unsuitable strategy on a grass surface like Wimbledon where the serve-and-volley knockout artists always prevail. Michael, who reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon for the first time last year, is not deterred. "I was encouraged by the fact Jim Courier, where grass is not his best surface, got to the finals at Wimbledon two years ago. That shows that, with maturity, you learn how to handle all surfaces. And I like to think I'm maturing."

Michael Chang at the baseline is nightmare enough for many tour players. Michael Chang maturing into an all-court player would be about as welcome as a foot fault.

Burnout? Michael doesn't smoke.

As this is written, Chang has just whipped France's Guy Forget in an opening match, 6-3, 6-2. This will not come as good news to the rest of the field. There will be no cheering in the locker rooms. Having Michael still in the draw is like seeing Andretti in your rear-view mirror, seeing Tyson leave his corner or Aikman fading back with the ball. The best you can get is worn out.

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