June 11, 1989: The Day Michael Chang became the youngest male Grand Slam champion
- 11 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, June 11, 1989, Michael Chang, aged 17 years and three months, became the youngest man to ever win a Grand Slam tournament, beating Stefan Edberg in the French Open final after being down two sets to one (6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2). On his way to the final, he defeated world No 1 Ivan Lendl, to general astonishment, in the fourth round. It would remain Stefan Edberg’s only Roland-Garros final, and this loss would eventually prevent him from achieving a career Grand Slam.
Michael Chang, the young prodigy
Michael Chang was born in 1972. In 1987, at the age of 15, he became the youngest player to ever win a match at the US Open (defetating Paul McNamee). The following year, in June, aged only 16 years and 3 months, he was the youngest player to enter the top 100, and he reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time, in New York, where he was beaten by Andre Agassi. In 1989, he reached the quarter-finals in Indian Wells and the semi-finals at Forest Hills, on American clay, defeated by Jaime Yzaga (6-4, 6-3), which helped him climb as high as No 19 before Roland-Garros.
Setafn Edberg, the attacker not so great on clay
Stefan Edberg was born in 1966. Hugely successful as a junior (he achieved the junior Grand Slam in 1983), he almost quit tennis the same year, at the age of 17, after one of his serves accidentally resulted in the death of a line judge in New York. In December 1985, a few months after a young Boris Becker had broken through by winning Wimbledon, Stefan Edberg claimed his first Grand Slam title, also on grass, at the Australian Open, defeating fellow Swede Mats Wilander in the final (6-4, 6-3, 6-3).
The tournament was not held in 1986, due to its change of date to January, and Edberg would successfully defend his title in January 1987, defeating Aussie favourite Pat Cash (6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3). In 1988, he added a Wimbledon title to his achievements, defeating Becker (4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2) in a final that began one of the most famous rivalries in tennis history. His serve and volley style was not as efficient on clay; he had claimed only one of his 19 titles on this surface, and he had only reached the quarter-finals once at Roland-Garros, in 1985 (lost to Jimmy Connors, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6).
The story took place at Roland-Garros, Paris. The stadium, located in the west of Paris at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne forest, had been hosting the French Open since 1928. It was the first and now the only Grand Slam to be played on clay, the slowest surface, which made it the hardest tournament to win from a physical perspective. With the prominence of baseliners like Ivan Lendl or Wilander, and the topspin era, winning Roland-Garros became the biggest challenge for those who were attacking the net, like Edberg did. In the 1980s, only one player, Yannick Noah in 1983, managed to claim the men’s title while consistently playing serve and volley.
In 1989, Stefan Edberg, the world No 3, reached the quarter-finals of the French Open for the second time. There, not changing anything to his usual serve and volley plan, he delivered an exquisite performance to beat one of the favourites, Alberto Mancini, a real clay-court specialist, who had won the tournaments of Rome and Monte-Carlo that year (6-1, 6-3, 7-6). In the semi-finals, he faced his Wimbledon rival Becker, an encounter quite unusual on clay for these great grass-court players, and edged him out in five sets (6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2). He was now one match away from winning Roland-Garros while playing serve and volley, which no one, not even John McEnroe in his prime, had done since Noah in 1983 and since wooden racquets had disappeared from the Tour.
Between the Swede and the Coupes des Mousquetaires stood the unlikely figure of Chang. The young American, ranked No 19 at only 17 years of age, had defeated another US rising star, Pete Sampras, in the second round (6-1, 6-1, 6-1), but it was in the fourth round that he made himself famous and left a print in the tournament’s history. That day, against world No 1 Lendl, he showed unbelievable mental strength at such a young age, coming back from two sets to love to eventually win, after overcoming cramps in the fifth set. In the fifth set, he played with Lendl’s nerves by making the unforgettable underarm serve and by pushing him to double fault on match point by waiting for his second serve just behind the service line. After this huge upset, Chang stayed focused and Ronald Agenor, then Andrei Chesnokov, could not stop him from reaching his first Grand Slam final.
On Sunday, June 11, the French crowd expected an exciting final between those two players, with such different game styles. The first set was disappointing. Surprisingly, the youngster did not seem to feel the pressure of the event and retrieved almost every ball, whereas the experienced Edberg, very tight, was a shadow of his usual self. Chang easily took it 6-1.
In the second set, the Viking inside Edberg suddenly awoke. Gaining in depth, he could now attack the net without exposing himself to Chang’s precise passing shots. Displaying all his amazing skills at the net, the world No 3 overwhelmed Chang’s defensive game and claimed the next two sets, 6-3, 6-4. Despite Chang’s fighting spirit, Edberg now seemed out of reach as he obtained no fewer than 10 breakpoints in the fourth set. But the American, who had already proven his mental strength against Lendl, saved them all. Chang fought hard on every point, and eventually, he managed to break his opponent and even the score. Two sets all.
The match was over. Exhausted after three hours of running to the net on almost every point, and maybe also frustrated by the numerous missed opportunities of the fourth set, Stefan Edberg collapsed in the fifth, which he lost 6-2. Michael Chang, 17 years old, was the 1989 Roland-Garros champion, the youngest in men’s Grand Slam history.
Chang’s run to the title at Roland-Garros in 1989 would become a part of Roland-Garros legend. His fourth-round match against Lendl would be considered as one the top 10 remarkable moments in the tournament’s history. His underarm serve would become almost as famous as Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” in football.
In 1990, Michael Chang would struggle to confirm his new status. Although he would still reach the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros (defeated by Andre Agassi, 6-2, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2), he would drop out of the top 10 in April 1990, until March 1992. His peak years would be 1995-1997. In these three years, he would not only reach three Grand Slam semi-finals, but he would also finish runner-up at three other major events; Roland-Garros in 1995 (lost to Thomas Muster, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4), the 1996 Australian Open (defeated by Becker, 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4) and the 1996 US Open (beaten by Pete Sampras, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6). In September 1996, he would become the world No 2, his best ranking ever. Leaving the top 10 in early 1998, he would then slowly decline and would retire in 2003.
One month after his loss against Chang, Edberg would face another disappointment in the Wimbledon final, where Becker would avenge his 1988 loss (6-0, 7-6, 6-4). After losing a third Grand Slam final in a row at the 1990 Australian Open (against Lendl, 4-6, 7-6, 5-2 retired), Edberg would bounce back to win his second Wimbledon title (beating Becker) and become the world No 1 on August 13, 1990, a spot he would hold for 72 weeks in total. Edberg would add two more Grand Slam titles to his list of achievements, claiming two US Open crowns in 1991 and 1992. At the end of his career, in 1996, Roland-Garros would remain the only major tournament he never won.
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