Saturday, December 27, 2014

On the Chang Line

Listening to this week's No Challenges Remaining podcast, in which Courtney and Ben covered a number of topics (including player prize money, which I hope to address in a forthcoming post), I was motivated by their discussion of their Hall of Fame ballots - and reference to Greg Couch's controversial Rolling Stone article "The Tennis Hall of Fame's Michael Chang Problem" - to compose my own post about this issue.

A little backstory: as I mentioned in one of my first blog posts, Michael Chang was my favorite tennis player for nearly a decade. He is my age, and I loved watching his career develop as I moved through high school, college, and young adulthood.  I was inspired by his grit, his speed, and his underdog spirit. I admired how he worked on improving his game to stay with the bigger hitters and servers.

So yes, I'm a bit biased.

Okay, bottom line - Chang was not one of the handful of no-doubt greatest players of all time. But neither is he the most marginal case the Hall of Fame has ever seen. It should not be "The Chang Line" we talk about. Plenty of other players - Jana Novotna, Yannick Noah, Gabriela Sabatini, Rosie Casals, Pam Shriver, even two-time major winner Patrick Rafter - had thinner resumes than Chang.

Lest we let Couch's effective dismissal of an amazing career go unanswered, here are some points in Chang's favor that should have been included in considering where he stands in the pantheon - points that Couch was neglectful in ignoring.

He had fantastic raw numbers
I have a real problem with using singles majors won as the only metric (or one of two metrics, the other being whether a player was ever #1) for HOF inclusion.  Tennis shines brightest during the majors, but the guts of the sport is the week-in/week-out grind. Chang had 34 titles, including seven Masters Series titles. 34 is more than Mats Wilander and Manuel Orantes - and the same number as Noah and Rafter combined. Only Thomas Muster won more singles titles and isn't in the Hall of Fame (he won 44 titles but the vast majority of those were at the lowest tier, and all but 3 were on clay). Chang was in an additional 24 finals, including at the US Open, the Australian Open, and again at Roland Garros.

Chang, it's true, never reached number 1. Problem was, when he was #2 it was behind the greatest player of his generation, and one of the greatest of all time, Pete Sampras.

He ushered in of the Golden Age of American (men's) Tennis 
He was the least accomplished of the Sampras/Agassi/Courier/Chang foursome, but he was the first - and he did it on clay.  He showed the others that winning majors and beating the best in the world was not only possible, but it was possible on any surface.

Prior to Chang's monumental win, no American man had won a major in 5 years.  Starting with Chang, an American man won at least one major for 15 consecutive years.  Prior to Chang, no American man had won the French Open in 34 years!  Starting with Chang, three American men won four French Opens in 11 years.

True, Chang had losing records against Sampras (8-12) and Agassi (7-15). Agassi was just a bad match-up, but his record against Pete was not too bad - particularly since only two of their matches were on clay, both won by Michael.  He was 12-12 vs. Courier.

He changed the game
Chang helped create the modern baseline-oriented game, and his stylistic progeny remain hugely important in men's tennis.  Without Chang I doubt there would be a Lleyton Hewitt, David Ferrer, Sebastian Grosjean or a host of other "undersized" speedy baseliners who can make for such thrilling and gutty tennis.  Plus: he brought us the leaping two-handed backhand!

Far more importantly is his impact on tennis globally. He truly cared about tennis in the continent of his parents' birth, and specifically he did phenomenal work to bring tennis to China.  Li Na will be remembered as the first Asian major winner, but Chang was the first major winner of Asian heritage.  And he continues his outreach and work there - he just coached the first Asian male to reach a major final!

(Speaking of Asia, remember that Chang's run to the 1989 French Open title coincided with the Tiananmen Square revolt and ensuing crackdown. Just incredible.)

His shining moment was absolutely remarkable
If, as Couch suggests in his article, a criteria for the Hall of Fame is whether you tell stories about a player, there are few tennis stories more remarkable than Chang's win over Lendl at that French Open. Down two sets versus the world #1 (who had won three Roland Garros titles) and suffering from leg cramps, Chang fought through everything and used every trick in the book - including the famous underhand serve - to win that match.  AT 17 YEARS OLD.

What's most amazing about that match is that it was a fourth round match. Name another mid-round match that is more legendary. You can't. And then he backed it up by winning three more matches (still only 17 years old) including a final against Stefan Edberg in which he overcame a 2-sets-to-1 deficit.

And he went on to improve his game and have a great - nay, legendary - career. He didn't flame out despite his physical limitations.  He was in the Top 10 for the better part of a decade.

Oh yeah, and despite his relentlessness and intensity, he was a spectacularly good sportsman, to the extent that that sort of thing matters.

In the end, I don't really care how Couch cast his ballot (although voting for Pierce over Mauresmo is perplexing to me). But to suggest that Michael Chang's career can be boiled down to the top ranking he achieved and his status as having won only one slam, in my opinion does a disservice to the player, to fans, and to the Hall.

Chang isn't in the Hall of Fame for winning one slam. He's in the Hall of Fame - and rightfully so - despite winning only one slam.

I think Couch needs to reconsider where "the Chang Line" actually lies.

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