Friday, May 22, 2009


(sixth in a series)

I've always thought there's one aspect of the slams that has traditionally made them so fun to follow, and provides an answer to why you keep an eye on seeming mismatches... just to see if something memorable might happen. Call it "the power of the unexpected."

Cynical and jaded attitudes are often no where to be found during the four biggest two-week tennis festivals each season. Through it all over the years, we're still capable of being shocked by an ultimate outcome of an event that can make a sudden, history-making star out of a player many people weren't paying any legitimate attention to before the start of play. From Iva Majoli in Paris in 1997 to Anastasia Myskina there seven years later (and even, on a smaller scale, Maria Sharapova's early run to a Wimbledon crown that same Russian-dominated summer), these, "Hi, my name is..." moments occur on a somewhat regular basis.

But no matter what shockers happen in the future, they'll likely have nothing on what happened at Roland Garros twenty years ago.

In 1989, a single mind-blowing slam champion wasn't hatched in Paris -- twins were born! In the form of a pair of 17-year old first-time champions -- Spain's Arantxa Sanchez and the U.S.'s Michael Chang -- who claimed the women's and men's titles, respectively, to become the youngest Roland Garros champions ever while beating back more established opponents with guts and guile, producing the most unpredictable final weekend of any slam. Ever.

Going into that year's tournament, a Spanish woman hadn't appeared in a slam singles final in sixty-one years. But the fiery sparkplug that was Sanchez -- "The Barcelona Bumblebee" -- changed all that, and altered the women's tennis history of her country.

Meanwhile, American men's tennis was deemed to be in dire straights, too... or so it seemed. It'd been five years since there'd been an American men's slam champ (John McEnroe at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in '84), and over the previous decade the only American to win a slam other than McEnroe or Jimmy Connors was Brian Teacher at the Australian in '80. Neither McEnroe nor Connors would win another slam in their careers, reaching four total slam semifinals from 1989-91.

The new corps of American Generation X'ers were simply not progressing quickly enough for everyone's tastes. Eventually, the group would become arguably the most successful ever in U.S. tennis. But in '89, the natives were restless. We were still a year away from Pete Sampras' U.S. Open win and two from the start of Jim Courier's drive to the #1 ranking, while Andre Agassi was existing in the "image is everything"/highlighted long hair/cover boy/neon bike shorts phase of his early career. Chang, even after winning an ATP title a season earlier at age 16, wasn't even under consideration to be the first to truly emerge... let alone become the first American man to triumph in Paris in thirty-four years.

Of course, who ever could have foreseen the Chinese-American teenager's upset of #1-ranked Ivan Lendl in the 4th Round in a come-from-behind (two sets down) four-hour marathon? In the match, coming one day after the violent government crackdown by Communist China on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Chang suffered severe leg cramps that caused him to refuse to sit down during changeovers, as he paced back and forth while drinking water and hoping to avoid having his leg muscles lock up. Forced to go deep into his bag of tricks to win the match, Chang resorted to throwing in quick underhand serves to catch a peeved Lendl off-guard, and standing right at the service box to return the Czech's serve at match point. Angry and exasperated, and receiving no help from the chair umpire against the odd (some called them unsportsmanlike) tactics, Lendl double-faulted and Chang's place in grand slam history was secure... even before he played a five-set final against Stefan Edberg.

Sanchez's run wasn't nearly as Shakespearean, but it was just as invigorating. The Spaniard had shown herself to be a player to watch in Paris before, reaching the quarterfinals as a 15 and 16-year old in 1987-88 and upsetting Chris Evert. But with just one WTA tour title to her credit coming in, the #7-seed wasn't deemed "ready" to become a grand slam champ. Not yet. Not with world #1 Steffi Graf arriving in Paris a season after her Golden Slam and having won five straight slam titles.

But there the pair were on the final weekend after making dual runs-of-a-lifetime through their respective main draws while sporting identical new striped Reebok shirts, outdoing each other's heroics with unexpected wins over the sport's greats until it became apparent that BOTH might actually win the whole thing.

Here's how your friendly neighborhood (pre-)Backspinner saw it back then.

"A Revolution on the Clay of Roland Garros" (June 1989)

The breeze rolled in like a sudden storm off a bay. The kind of storm that pops up in the middle of a serene afternoon. But this storm was different from the normal storm which comes and goes and is forgotten within moments. This storm will be remembered for years to come.

This storm brought with it a gust of fresh air and a feeling that things will be fine in the future after all. This storm, a storm of talent and promise, was led by two 17-year olds who arrived in Paris as kids and left as, though still kids, unexpected champions. Tennis has been given a much-needed transfusion, and none too soon.

With the upset singles championship wins by Spain's Arantxa Sanchez (7-6/3-6/7-5 over #1 Steffi Graf) and the U.S.'s Michael Chang (6-1/3-6/4-6/6-4/6-2 over #3 Stefan Edberg), the tourney's #15-seed and the first American male to win the French Open since Tony Trabert in 1954-55, the sport's playing surfaces were finally shown to be a competitive arena (especially on the women's side) where dreams can come true and where great talent amongst the up-and-comers is abundant.

The women's tour was starting to resemble an old "B"-movie. The kind of flick where Godzilla or some other overpowering force rampages through a city whose inhabitants are rendered helpless. Until recently, it looked as if the carnage left in the wake of soon-to-be-20 year old Graf was beginning to pile up to an unimaginable height. Graf came into Paris having won the Golden Slam (all four slams plus Olympic Gold in Seoul) and finding herself one-quarter of the way to an unprecedented Double Slam after winning the Australian Open in January. She looked seemingly invincible.

Graf's stranglehold on the women's game appeared to become even tighter when it was learned that Chris Evert, who skipped the French, would retire before the year ends and that Martina Navratilova, who was also absent in Paris, would soon follow the American into the world of TV tennis commentating, especially if Martina can somehow pull off a record-breaking ninth Wimbledon crown next month.

Eighteen-year old Argentine Gabriela Sabatini, Graf's doubles partner, looked to be the only player who could challenge Graf over the long haul the next few years after the two aforementioned queens of the game call it a career. Only Soviet Natalia Zvereva, 17, seemed additionally capable of improving enough to possibly break into the group of women challenging regularly for tennis' four slam titles.

With Graf continuing to improve her already imposing game it, at times, appeared as if a time would come when she would not lose. Not at all. Maybe for a year or longer. True, it is nice for the game to have a superior champion, but for tennis to fully benefit from a great champion that champion must have one or more foils to make the going a little bit more interesting. Graf's dominance was starting to make the women's game a sometimes-boring (she has made nine straight slam finals) display of her awesome talent. It's unfortunate, but also true.

Jack Nicklaus had Arnold Palmer. Bill Russell had Wilt Chamberlain. The Yankees had the Dodgers. Billie Jean King had Evert. Evert had Navratilova. All were great, but each was made greater by the competition from the other. Graf has no one. Yet. Just look at Mike Tyson and the (yawn) heavyweight boxing division to see the impact that a lack of competition can have on even one of the best.

Over the course of two weeks on the red clay of Stade Roland Garros, this dearth of top-notch competition seems to have been replaced by a bevy of young(er) challengers to Graf's throne who appeared like magic out of the rains and have, in effect, raised the level of women's tennis astonishingly quickly.

The average age of the women's semifinalists was just seventeen at this tournament, with Graf, the young phenom of three years ago, being the elder stateswoman of the group. 15-year old giggling Yugoslav Monica Seles won the hearts of many and very nearly ousted Graf in a hotly contested semifinal match which proved that the German (especially when she's cramping) could very well be beaten.

Seventeen-year old American Mary Joe Fernandez, newly graduated and ready to devote herself to the game, booted Sabatini early in the tournament and was showing that her long-talked-about potential was no joke. Baseliner Fernandez eventually lost to Sanchez in the semis, but she would seem most certainly to continue to improve the more time she works on her game. With the history of U.S. teenagers burning out well in her mind, Fernandez showed her smarts by getting her diploma and not pushing herself into something that she was not ready for (being a full-time pro). If she uses that intelligence to its fullest she should succeed at whatever she pursues in or out of tennis.

But it was the young, gutsy, confident and determined Sanchez who pulled off possibly the biggest upset in women's tennis in many a year when she knocked off Graf in the final. The 17-year old is built low to the ground and possesses great speed. The fact that she is most at home on clay (just like brother Emilio) only added to the confidence the Spaniard displayed before the match, as her potency on the dirt was glimpsed a season ago when she knocked off Evert in what will now turn out to be the seven-time champion's final Roland Garros match.

Sanchez, the youngest women's French titleholder ever, was certainly helped by Graf's much-talked-about "feminine cramps," made worse by the grueling three-hour length of the match, but who's to say that the German would not have slowed down in the second of back-to-back long contests anyway? She certainly hasn't recently been used to being tested even once, let alone as she was in consecutive matches by both Seles and Sanchez. The fact that Sanchez broke Graf's serve twice at love after being down 5-3 in the 3rd set proved two things -- Graf is indeed human (surprise), and Sanchez never gives up. It is this Connorsesque grit and heart of a fighter which would seem to indicate a bright future for the hard-nosed teenager.

The field is starting to catch up to Graf, even if only slightly. But even THAT is progress that should make the coming decade a competitive and exciting one for the women's game. Sanchez's victory was the best thing that could have happened in Paris. It will give the other women a reason to press on, and should enable us to see many a fine slam final in the future.

While Sanchez gave us one of the biggest wins in recent memory, fellow 17-year old Michael Chang gave us an entire tournament of memories that will live forever.

Chang came into this tournament with little chance of winning and thereby ending the long American male French Open title drought of thirty-four years. Most figured if any U.S. man could win in Paris it would be 18-year old Andre Agassi. But when Agassi was ousted by countryman Jim Courier early most assumed the winless streak would be extended to thirty-five years.

Chang captured the Parisians' attention when he upset top-ranked Ivan Lendl in a marathon five-setter in which the American suffered through severe leg cramps. Chang could barely run and was forced to serve underhanded at one point. But when Lendl double-faulted on match point, as the American stood daringly just a few feet from the service line, the normally calm Chang fell to the ground in jubilation (and one must think, relief) as tears welled up in his eyes.

If Chang's journey had ended in the next round he still would have been remembered. But with hard-fought wins over Ronald Agenor, Andrei Chesnokov and Stefan Edberg in the final he will go down in history as a testament that anything can happen -- and sometimes does.

With his victory, which makes him the youngest men's slam champion ever, Chang adds his name to the list of young American males who are starting to pop up who can challenge for top titles. Chang, Agassi (who will not be truly respected until he stops worrying about damaging his ranking and decides to play Wimbledon) and Courier head the impressive list of young Americans poised for additional breakthroughs.

In this age of stoic champions such as Lendl, Mats Wilander and, to a lesser extent, Edberg, it's nice to see an infectious presence arrive on the men's circuit. Not since Boris Becker's triumphs at Wimbledon in 1985-86 has the men's tour had a current slam winner with that quality. With Jimmy Connors ready to retire soon and John McEnroe only now starting to make a comeback, U.S. tennis and, for that matter, all of men's tennis needs as many Changs as it can find.

After what may well be the best French Open in history we can now look forward to Wimbledon's start in two weeks time. But before we turn our attention to that sedate spectacle we should take a look at what is truly important in the grand scheme of things. When the young Chang wished luck to those in China following the past week's Beijing bloodshed, it was obvious that he does indeed have his head set squarely on his shoulders. So, to prove that we all do, we should follow Mr. Chang's lead.

Good luck.

6...Roland Garros ('89, '94, '98 champ)
2...U.S. Open ('94 champ)
2...Australian Open

1442...Martina Navratilova
1304...Chris Evert
900...Steffi Graf
839...Virginia Wade

1661...Martina Navratilova
1448...Chris Evert
1168...Virginia Wade

2-5...vs. Steffi Graf
1-1...vs. Mary Pierce
1-2...vs. Monica Seles

3...Mary Joe Fernandez, USA
3...Fernando Gonzalez, CHI
3...Conchita Martinez, ESP
3...Jana Novotna, CZE
3...Venus Williams, USA

48...SANCHEZ (Arantxa, Emilio & Javier)
32...Richey (Nancy & Cliff)
31...Austrin (Tracy & Jeff)
26...Safina/Safin (Dinara & Marat)

177...Martina Navratilova
112...Rosie Casals
106...Pam Shriver
101...Billie Jean King
80...Natasha Zvereva
76...Jana Novotna

102...Martina Navratilova, 1984/85/86-87
29...Martina Hingis, 1998/99/00
3...Lindsay Davenport, 2000
3...Kim Clijsters, 2003

Roland Garros (2) - Edberg 1-0, Muster 0-1
Australian (1) - Becker 0-1
U.S. Open (1) - Sampras 0-1

66...Fabrice Santoro
61...Andre Agassi
58...Jonas Bjorkman
57...Jimmy Connors
57...Ivan Lendl
57...Wayne Ferreira

17...Andre Agassi
15...Rafael Nadal
15...Roger Federer
11...Pete Sampras
8...Thomas Muster

Chang is still the youngest men's slam winner ever, while Sanchez-Vicario's (she added her mother's maiden name in '98) Roland Garros youngest-ever mark was broken just one year later by 16-year old 1990 champion Seles. While both the then-17 year olds grew into eventual Hall of Famers, Sanchez's career ultimately far outpaced Chang's.

Roland Garros '89 was but a prelude to a great, twenty-year (1985-05) career for ASV. Along with Conchita Martinez, she led a golden era for Spanish women's tennis. Together the pair reached a total of fifteen slam singles finals (winning five) from 1989-2000. Their only other countrywoman to do so has been Lili de Alvarez, who played in three Wimbledon finals from 1926-28.

Even in an era of power-hitters such as Graf, Seles, Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, the battling five-foot-six Sanchez-Vicario carved out quite a place for herself in women's tennis. She won four slam singles, six doubles and four mixed crowns in her career. She reached twelve slam singles finals, including at least two at each of the four events, and played in eight out of eleven finals from 1994-96. She won the U.S. Open in '94, and claimed two more French titles in '94 and '98. Sanchez won a total of 29 tour singles titles from 1988-01, ranks fifth all-time in career wins, fourth in matches and fifth in prize money. Her 69 doubles titles ranks her seventh on the all-time list. She's won more Olympic tennis medals (four - two silvers, two bronzes) than any other player in the modern era, and is Spain's all-time Olympic Medal winner. Sanchez-Vicario played in ten Fed Cup finals, including six consecutive, while leading Spain to five championships (four of five from 1991-95), and is the all-time Fed Cup wins leader.

ASV was #1 in the world for twelve weeks in 1995, and is one of only five women to simultaneously hold the top ranking in both singles and doubles. She first became doubles #1 in 1992, and held the spot for seventeen consecutive months from 1995-97, the fourth-longest streak in WTA history behind Martina Navratilova and the current world #1's Cara Black and Liezel Huber.

Sanchez-Vicario retired from singles in 2002, but was still playing doubles in 2004, winning her final title that season and playing on her fifth Olympic team in Athens. She played her final doubles match, fittingly, at Roland Garros in 2005.

The five-foot-seven Chang rose to #2 in 1996, was a member of the Davis Cup champion U.S. team in '90, and even reached three more slam finals (all over a fifteen-month span in 1995-96), but the Hoboken-born '89 surprise Prince of Paris was never really viewed again as a true threat to win another slam crown. After '97, he didn't advance past the 3rd Round in twenty-one slam appearances and saw his career end in '03 after a string of meek seasons that stood in marked contrast to his spectacular introduction to the world fourteen years earlier.

In all, Chang claimed 34 ATP titles, the last in Los Angeles in '00. He was known for his quickness, heart and fitness, but his lack of power in a game that became increasingly dominated by more physical, larger players caused him to get lost in the proverbial shuffle despite his status as the first of his American generation to win a slam crown. He never won another, and was passed over by Courier (four slam titles, including two at RG, and a #1 ranking) and two of the all-time greats in Agassi (who claimed at least one title at all four slams) and Sampras (the men's leader with 14 slams) when it comes to career achievement.

In an attempt to keep up with the power crowd, Chang famously switched to a longer racket to get more pop on his serve. He got it, and experienced short-term gains, but couldn't sustain his upswing and, as his career wore on, he even began to surrender the advantage that his teenaged legs once gave him as he lost more than a step to time.

Chang's starring moment was over quite quickly, but what a moment it was.

A generation later, American men's tennis finds itself in a position very similar to the one it held before Chang's Paris exploits. Since the Chang/Sampras/Agassi/Courier gang moved on, the only other U.S. man to win a slam has been Andy Roddick (in 2003), and the current longest-ever Open era six-year drought has thus now exceeded the gap between McEnroe and Chang's slam wins. Is there a Chang out there that will kick-start a new cycle of American success? Probably not, especially in the Nadal-Federer (Djokovic-Murray) era in which we now reside.

Sanchez-Vicario was elected to the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007, while Chang followed her into the fold in 2008.

While ASV continues to help run the Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy, the devout Chang's Chang Family Foundation seeks to spread Christian values all over the world. He also started a "Tennis Stars of the Future" program in Hong Kong. Chang's family heritage has helped him make many inroads for the sport in China, and for a time he coached Peng Shuai (he recently married playing protégé Amber Liu, by the way). Sanchez-Vicario has married twice, and in March gave birth to her first child, a daughter also named Arantxa.

Even as ASV climbed higher after her Paris win, while Chang never quite reached the same heights again, they're still linked by those two glorious weeks twenty years ago when they were a pair of 17-year olds introducing themselves to the world by becoming the most stunning dual champions at a single slam in history... and maybe forever after, as well.

It's hard to imagine that their feat could ever be topped... but, then again, the possibility of it happening is precisely why we always come back for more.

All for now.

PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES: 1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier)

NEXT UP IN 2009:
1993 Wimbledon - Novotna's collapse


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