Michael Chang Speaks Out

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=”75″ />INSIDE TENNIS: I see you’re part of the 12-city Champions Series tour along with John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and your former rivals Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier. Seems like old times.

MICHAEL CHANG: It’s going to be extremely competitive. There’s a lot on the line. It’s not going to be quite like it was when we were out there on tour, but at the same time you’ve got champions who know how to win. I’ll be honest with you: we all still have egos to some degree. When you’ve grown up playing against these guys, you don’t want to lose to them.

IT: The fire still burns.

MC: Andre’s been fueling that fire a little bit through his book [the ‘09 bio Open]. That doesn’t necessarily help the situation, but it certainly adds a lot more flair for the rest of us.

IT: Were you taken aback when you read those passages about you, about how you felt God was on your side? I know Pete took exception to comments about his, shall we say, frugality.

MC: I read the excerpts, and it’s hard for me not to shake my head a little bit. I wonder if, to some degree, whether some of the stuff he wrote was more or less to sell the book.

IT: He did get a hefty advance.

MC: It was kind of odd. Andre was very harsh on me for my Christian faith, but at the same time, I believe he understands where I am as far as my faith. We actually used to have Bible studies together early on in our careers. He was upset that I would go and thank the Lord for my matches, which, back then, was probably not as commonplace as you see today. I would have thought that he would know me better than that; that me going out and expressing that has nothing to do with saying, “I’m better than you,” or “God loves me more than he loves you.” That’s not the case. I was just giving glory where glory’s due. I kind of took it with a grain of salt. What’s interesting is that Andre released his book about a week after we played at the Esurance Classic [the annual exhibition match in Mill Valley, Calif.]. Amber [Chang’s wife] and I played a mixed doubles match against Andre and Steffi [Graf]. I hadn’t seen Andre in a long time. We were just catching up, talking. Everything was very lighthearted, very humorous. But he never mentioned anything to me about the book. All of a sudden — BOOM! — the book comes out seven days later.

IT: According to Jim, Andre read him relevant chapters to make sure he was comfortable with it. It sounds like neither you nor Pete ever got a call.

MC: I read that in Inside Tennis. That made me shake my head again. It was kind of odd. He was pretty harsh on everybody. I’m not really sure what his purpose was. But Andre is Andre. He can say what he wants. I would hope that, deep down inside, he knows what is real. Maybe those were just some of his thoughts at that particular time, what he was going through.

IT: He would likely counter that he was harsh on himself, too. He put it out there that he hit some real lows in his life, that he had experimented with crystal meth, et cetra. Were you surprised by any of those revelations, or knowing him all those years did you suspect that he might be going through some of that stuff?

MC: I’ve known Andre for a long time, but I can’t say I’ve known Andre to that degree to where I knew what he was doing on a daily basis. I was never that close to him. We were actually good friends early on in our careers. We shared the same faith; we would periodically practice together. Andre stayed at my house when he came to play the 12s Nationals Hard Courts. That’s really when I first met him. Then I came out to Vegas as an amateur when I was 15, playing some Challengers. He warmed me up for one of my matches. For the most part, I’ve had a good relationship with Andre. It’s just, every now and then, he says some things. I guess we all know to some degree that Andre has said some things that he’s regretted in his career, but it’s always been colorful.

IT: McEnroe and Jimmy Connors recently agreed, and Maria Sharapova spoke on this, too, that you never really get too close to anybody when you’re on tour. You travel year-round with these people, share the same locker rooms, but you never truly become close friends. Is that a fair assessment?

MC: It depends. The Aussies were close. The Swedes were close. For the four of us, we’ve gone through stages. I’ve known Pete since I was eight. I’ve known Andre since I was 10. I’ve known Jim since I was about 12. I roomed with Jim through Junior Davis Cup, so I got to know him through that whole summer. Pete and I trained together a lot early on in our careers. When Pete turned pro, he pretty much went out by himself. There aren’t a whole lot of guys who are going to be hanging out with a 16-year-old. My mom was traveling with me the first four years of my career. So Pete and I would train together, practice together, play doubles together. Pete would come out and eat all the time with my mom and I. Early on in our careers, we were closer. Then, as we each got better and better and started to win tournaments and go up the rankings, we each had our own support teams that we spent more time with.

IT: You had to go and ruin it by winning the ‘89 French Open.

MC: Yeah. But I think we fed of each other and gained confidence. At the same time, it got to the point where the four of us were doing so well. It was not uncommon for us to take a look at the draw and say, “Okay, where’s Jim, where’s Pete, where’s Andre?”

IT: We’re constantly looking for the next generation of American stars. Is that what it takes to get to the top — a group of guys who push each other, even if it takes a toll on their friendships? We have more of a congenial, fraternity-house atmosphere with the top U.S. players right now with Fish, Roddick, Isner and Querrey. Everyone seems to get along swimmingly. Do we need some good old-fashioned animosity?

MC: It’s hard to say. It depends on the timing of a generation. Andy has had to deal with Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. If you take Federer out of the mix, how many Grand Slam titles does Andy have? For our generation, we were at the top. There were some other players lurking, but we were the ones pushing each other. It became a very competitive thing — off the court, on the court. We were focused. You have to have that focus in order to be able to go out and play your best tennis. It’s hard to go out there and play against a friend. Our tennis excelled to another level, but our friendships became a lot more distant. Toward the end of our careers, we came back to becoming a little bit closer again because we weren’t dominating. We were rooting for each other.

IT: It came full circle. You’ve said you’ve had your ups and downs with Andre, but given that you already have a plaque hanging in Newport, Rhode Island, what do you think Andre’s emotions will be when he’s inducted in July?

MC: I think it’s going to be overwhelming for him. What Andre’s accomplished is phenomenal. To do it with the amount of flair that he’s had both on and off the court has brought a lot of excitement to tennis. I think it will be very special for him. He’s gotten a taste of what it’s like to be there because he was the speaker when Steffi was inducted. So he knows how special that place is. I think he’ll really relish the moment. But it’s no surprise — he belongs there.

IT: God knows the emotions got to Pete when he was inducted. When you guys were coming up together in the ‘80s in the 10s, 12s and 14s, could you ever have envisioned that one day all four of you would be Hall of Famers?

MC: Absolutely not. I think everyone would give you the same answer. It was different because, at least for Pete, Jim and I, we just enjoyed tennis. I don’t think any of us thought about going on to play professionally. Our parents thought, “Hey, if we get a tennis scholarship out of it, that would be great.” Andre’s dad might have felt a little bit differently. I know he pushed Phil and Rita [Andre’s brother and sister] hard. He had more of a mentality of his kids going out to play professional tennis. That being said, Andre’s parents are great. But I never would have imagined that. I don’t think any one of those guys did either.

IT: With Li Na’s victory in Paris, what do you think the impact will be for Chinese tennis?

MC: The timing is phenomenal. Tennis was already starting to pick up. When I was playing, we had quite a few smaller tournaments in China. We would play in Hong Kong a couple of times a year. We had a tournament in Shanghai, in Beijing. Then it kind of went away. Now you see more events. You have the ATP Masters in Shanghai. Tennis is obviously picking up, not just from a playing aspect, but from a tournament aspect. All of a sudden, Li Na reached the Australian Open final, then won the French Open. Timing-wise, I don’t think it could be any better.

IT: Will that exposure trickle down to the grassroots level?

MC: It’s only natural when kids are inspired to pick up the sport after watching a fellow countryman do so well that it’s going to take a few years. But China has made some great strides to make tennis more of a priority. That’s a change for them. Their focus for the most part has really been on table tennis, Olympic sports, gymnastics. Now it gives them something else.

IT: How big is Li’s personality in China now? Can she reach the level of the NBA’s Yao Ming or Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang?

MC: She’s probably one of the more prominent female athletes in China. Yao Ming is obviously a household name. But between Li Na, Peng Shuai, Zhang Shuai and Jie Zheng — they’ve done so well that they’ve been household names for a while now because of their success. Now it’s just jumping up another level. What’s encouraging is that they’ve been able to feed off of each other’s success. Peng Shuai is at a career-high ranking [No. 20]. No doubt a lot of it has to do with seeing Li Na be successful. Hopefully, it will be a chain effect for the women and maybe even spur the men on, too.

IT: Are you surprised that, given China’s population [more than 1.3 billion], more men aren’t breaking through?

MC: People sometimes don’t realize that tennis is still a relatively new sport in China. Over the years, it hasn’t necessarily been that easy of a sport to pick up. Even today, it’s very much a high-end sport. A lot of the people who play tend to be diplomats or politicians, wealthy people. You can’t just walk onto a court and play. If you’re just a regular local, you can’t just hop on and play like we can here in the U.S. We can hop onto college courts, high school courts. People have to pay to play tennis over there. Even though it’s only a few dollars, for the average person, that’s very expensive.

IT: You’ve been involved in various ventures in China over the years. Are you still making trips over there to get involved on the grassroots level?

MC: I’ve done some different things to promote tennis in China. It’s been a lot of fun. I get back there once, twice a year. I have a very soft heart for China. The people are extremely warm. I’d love to see more champions come out of there.

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