BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MASON -- In defeat, Michael Chang is defiant. He might get beat, but he won't get bent out of shape. In his darkest hour, he can be counted on for sunshine.
Michael Chang strikes his racket on the ground after losing a point.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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He has never been the best player in tennis, but he remains the most resolute, the most determined, and maybe the most deserving. He is the Little Engine That Should.
"I know down the road my best years are still waiting for me," the 26-year-old marvel said Wednesday. "I have faith in that and faith in the Lord that better things are going to happen in the future. And I think that's important for me, to have that perspective."
In the wake of a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Chang Wednesday afternoon, Yevgeny Kafelnikov confessed he is resigned to never reaching No. 1 so long as Pete Sampras is still playing. Chang, however, concedes less than Bill Clinton.
Slowed by injuries
After his earliest-ever exit from the Great American Insurance ATP Championship, Chang was able to look ahead and still see a limitless future. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg have burned out, and Andre Agassi's motivation is as fleeting as his fashions. But Chang is a constant, or at least his attitude is. Unlike so many of his racket-wielding contemporaries, his body will betray him before his mind does.
It has been a difficult year for tennis' golden retriever. After six straight seasons among the world's top 10 players, Chang has been compromised by an assortment of injuries, most recently a strained wrist. Wednesday, he was cramping so severely that he remained on the court for more than an hour after his match -- signing autographs, walking laps -- rather than risk the complications of sitting down.
Chang says: 'I'm not the type of person that's going to quit.'
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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"It's been a tough year," he said. "But I'm a tough guy. You have adversity. You have difficult times. I'm not the type of person that's going to quit.
"One thing I know is that God likes great finishes, and given a choice, I would prefer to end my career on a high note rather than reach it early and then, you know, go off into the sunset."
It seems a strange notion to be discussing decline with a 26-year-old, but elite tennis players tend to peak early, get rich quickly, and get bored easily. But Chang has no trouble identifying his targets. They are the three Grand Slam titles that have eluded him, and the No. 1 ranking.
On the surface, Chang is at the opposite extreme of a Jimmy Connors: respectful, restrained, in control of his passion. But their insides are identical -- relentlessly competitive, emotionally tireless. Chang is what Connors might have been had he ever been housebroken.
While Sampras' staying power has been remarkable, it should surprise no one if Chang is still playing when Sampras has packed it in.
"Sometimes I think, "Well, I've got to do it by this time, by this age; otherwise my best years have passed me by," Chang said. "But I realize that in my career, with the exception of the (1989) French (Open title), my career has been a steady climb."
He has progressed without the advantage of an overwhelming serve, by contesting each point as if it were worth Wimbledon. He treats injury as a test, and expects to emerge from the experience improved: Mentally tougher, physically refreshed.
Some athletes talk this way and it sounds as if they are feeding a delusion. The failure to acknowledge fading reflexes is as common in competitive sports as the cliche. But Michael Chang refuses to judge his career by the calendar.
"I don't go by history," he said. "I don't look at things in a way that is in comparison to the normal tennis player . . . who has accomplished a lot because my life is very unique and is very different."
He is an Asian-American who thinks his ethnic background portends a late maturity. He thinks his (smaller) size may ultimately prove an advantage. But most of all, Michael Chang believes in believing.
"I know it in my heart that my best years are ahead of me."
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.