Tuesday, August 7, 1997
Steady Chang in search
of higher plateau

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Michael Chang
Michael Chang puffs out his cheeks while returning a shot from Wayne Ferreira.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
Michael Chang doesn't do burnout. He has spent 10 years near the top of tennis and has been neither consumed nor bored by it.

His head is on straight. His life is in balance. His game is a harmonic convergence of talent and temperament, polish and patience.

He may be with us for a while.

Compared to top athletes in other sports, big-time tennis players have the shelf life of a loaf of Wonder Bread. They approach the peak of their profession as teen-agers and often lose interest before most of us have figured out what to do with our lives.

Stefan Edberg has come and gone. Boris Becker, 29, is already headed for the exit. Andre Agassi is 27, and aimless. Jim Courier peaked at 22.

Tennis still the priority

All of which makes Michael Chang all the more mystifying. At 25, he is in his sixth straight year as a top 10 player, and is no nearer retirement than Old Ironsides. Were it not for the extraordinary Pete Sampras - who defies comparison - Chang would be the world's top-ranked and most consistent player.

He may never make it to No. 1, but he will still be in the hunt when most of his peers are content to collect dividends. Wealth and fame and the rigors of the road have yet to undermine his ambition.

"I think if you are a young player, it is important to get your priorities straight," Chang said Wednesday. "If you don't have your priorities straight, you are not going to get the most out of the talent God has given you."

Making the most of one's raw materials is a quaint notion in a world devoted to getting by and instant gratification. It is even more unusual in men's tennis, where one good month can be worth as much as most men make in a lifetime.

"There is a lot of money involved," Chang said. "(And) that is one of the lures of tennis. That is one of the temptations to get your mind off of where you need to go. And there are a lot of distractions, too, which can really take a toll on a young person's mind."

Yet Michael Chang never seems inclined to coast. He lacks the serving power to overwhelm opponents, but has built a world-class game around retrieving and resilience, physical condition and mental toughness. He started the Great American Insurance ATP Championship as the world's second-ranked player. Should he reach Sunday's title match, he will have done so five years in a row.

Not afraid of 30

Chang began that quest Wednesday with a 6-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Wayne Ferreira that typified his tenacity. Though he would lose the first-set tiebreaker, Chang rallied from a 6-1 deficit to lose 7-4, and was close enough to a comeback to complain about a crucial line call at the end.

Michael Chang concedes fewer points than Johnnie Cochran. He is the pit bull of the baseline.

"You never know when things can happen," he explained. "You never know when you (might be) able to turn things around."

A lot of tennis players pay lip service to perseverance, but their behavior often bespeaks resignation. Upon reaching a competitive plateau, they look up to see someone like Sampras - the man of the moment - and they despair of climbing higher. They lose their edge, and soon their ranking.

In no other sport do elite players fade so fast. Perhaps this is predestined, a function of declining hand-eye coordination. Chang is not so sure.

"Maybe some other people would disagree with me, but I don't think 30 is all that old," Chang said Wednesday. "If your body is starting to break down by 30, you have got to figure something is not right.

"I think a lot of it is mental. At least that is my approach to it. People think it is a young man's sport, which it is, but I think when you are struggling people remind you of how old you are constantly and you think to yourself, 'Well, I am getting older.' Then you start thinking that maybe because you have an off day you are not moving quite as fast; that maybe it is because of age. I don't believe that."

Chang suggested we check back when he turns 30. When that time comes, we will look for him first on center court.