by Mauro Cappiello
translated into English by Mauro Cappiello
Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang during the trophy ceremony of the 1989 French Open final
One to get rid of the label of player only suitable to fast surfaces. The other to amaze the world and become the youngest ever winner of a Grand Slam tournament. On the Roland Garros Centre Court on June 11, 1989, history is to be written. Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang will play one of the most memorable finals of the Open era. Not so much for the quality of play ("A match largely decided by errors", as Nick Stout wrote on the New York Times the day after), but for the circumstances and developments of its plot.
It's been five years since an American has last won a Grand Slam, but, above all, thirty-four seasons have gone by since the last US triumph in Paris: in 1955 Tony Trabert won, completing his double in land of France, beating just a Swede in the final, Sven Davidson. Since then nothing. The hopes of a nation rest, therefore, on the slender shoulders of this Chinese guy born in New Jersey, a Speedy Gonzales made in USA, who damns his soul running from one side of the court to the other at an unprecedented speed and who, just a few days before, has literally made a fool of the world No. 1 Ivan Lendl, serving from below and returning from the service rectangle. But Michael doesn't want to think about history: "I would put further pressure on myself. I'm going to the court to give my all. What will be, will be."
Chang has already met Edberg in three previous meetings and was able to win for the first time in the most recent one, on the Indian Wells hardcourt. The two have never met on clay, a surface on which "many believed that I could not play well, even if I never doubted to be able to do that." Word of a beaming Stefan Edberg, emerged victorious in the semifinals on his eternal rival Boris Becker after a battle of three hours and 55 minutes in which he was two sets up, but had to come back from a break down in the fifth. Same script that Stefan will follow at Wimbledon against the same opponent in the final the following year. But that's another story.
Edberg, at 23, is at his first truly great performance on clay. In Paris he has never gone beyond the quarters and on the slow surface he managed to win a single tournament up to that point of his career, in 1986 in Gstaad, where, however, it's played at high altitude and, therefore, with higher ball speeds.
On the eve of the meeting, the world number 3 knows exactly what to expect from the final challenge: "If I serve well, I have a good chance. You can not play against Chang from the baseline, you have to attack him. I will have the chance on his serve, because he does not serve many aces." Edberg hopes to wear down with his net game an opponent already strained by two hard-fought matches: in addition to the one against Lendl in the fourth round, where he had managed to come back from two sets down and defeat the cramps with the help of some bananas, also the semifinal against Chesnokov. Four sets, three of which very close, that lasted more than four hours.
But at the beginning of the meeting the Swede looks the more tired. In the words of the great Gianni Clerici, the first phase sees "an Edberg curiously clumsy, unable to find the ball," while the American is "phenomenal in multiplying, almost as an illusionist acrobat of Beijing's Circus." The first set lasts 31 minutes and is a monologue by Chang. A listless and slow Edberg struggles to react to his opponent's passings coming from every side of the court. The number 15 seed seems resurrected compared to the player almost forced to be carried off the court a few days before.
When Chang takes a break of advantage in the fifth game of the second set, it seems that the story is destined to be resolved quickly. Here, however, the Swede is finally able to take control of his rival and start the match that everyone had expected. Edberg begins to draw the court with inspired geometry, he follows his sliced backhand approaches as soon as he can, and, urged by Chang's phenomenal pick-ups, looks for the most impossible angles with accurate volleys. It is the most spectacular moment of the match, in which the difference of styles between the two protagonists on court excites the Paris crowd that, great admirer of the serve & volley game, sees in Edberg a worthy successor to Noah, the last great attacker to win in Paris in 1983. The Swede retrieves the break and wins the second set, scoring seven consecutive games.
In the third set Edberg manages to establish himself by exploiting the break conquered at the start. "Those two rather obvious sets would therefore end 6-3, 6-4 for Edberg, but, disguised by the banality of the score, the junior's obstinate defense, that stoic returning the ball once more than possible of his, those breathtaking runs of his that would cut off also a Wilander at his best, remained there," continues Clerici.
But no, it is not despair, but fighting spirit, perseverance, as if that was not the first but the last career chance for that shaven seventeen year old. In the fourth set Edberg breaks Chang's serve in the first game and seems to safely fly away to the triumph. But, unexpectedly, the Chinese guy breaks back in the following game and from there begins to repel his opponent's continuous attacks. In the third game he comes back from 15-40, saves four break points and wastes three advantages before holding serve. On 3-3 he needs to get back from 0-40 and he succeeds again, thanks to two mistakes from Edberg and one winner of his. He saves two more break points and goes up 4-3. In his following round of serve he successfully saves again an opportunity for the Swede to break his serve. That makes ten break opportunities for Edberg in a bewitched fourth set. And, as dictated by an unwritten law in sports, eventually Chang will win the set, forcing his opponent to net a volley, with a great return.
Two sets all, time to restart. And as the match goes to the distance again, it remains to be seen which one of the two players will be able to better resist fatigue. Edberg again takes a break of advantage in the first game of the last set, at the end of another grueling game, with six deuces. But, from this point on, it is right the Swede who ends up exhausted by his own strategy: Chang's early returns, waiting for his second serve with his feet slightly behind the service rectangle, forced him to improbable stretches to hit the first volleys throughout the entire match, something extreme even for a routine net game like his. It was just normal that, after the three hours, the defending Wimbledon champion would begin to suffer fatigue.
And so Chang is reborn for the umpteenth time in this extraordinary run in Paris. He wins four consecutive games, but not before saving himself two more times in the fifth from as many break points that would have allowed Edberg in the match again. 4-1 for his opponent, the Swede has no longer got the energy to get back. Too many missed opportunities on the American's serve weigh like stones and prevented the Swede's pre-match prophecy from coming true.
Chang closes 6-2 on a forehand attack badly pulled over the net by Edberg and raises his arms in the air exhausted, as if he were the first not to believe. He won an incredible tournament after a final lasted three hours and 41 minutes in which he was forced to recover in four of the five sets played.
His name is added in the tournament champions list to Arantxa Sanchez', the 17 year old winner on Steffi Graf, the 1988 Grand Slam champion. 34 years in two, Michael and Arantxa, almost like the springs of the French Open champion one year later, the thirty-year-old Ecuadorian Gomez. The evidence of an edition of the Roland Garros to be delivered to tennis history books.
Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang during the trophy ceremony of the 1989 French Open final
"In the fourth set I thought it was over - says Michael after the match, not before thanking, as usual, God who led him to victory -. Probably some points inspired me to try even harder and to believe that there was a chance to recover."
"He played a lot of tough matches and has always managed to get back. You have to admire him for that - will reply Edberg, with his usual distinction -. He's young, maybe we he doesn't think that much.". Actually, maybe Chang would not have thought that that one obtained in the age of unconsciousness, would be his only success in the Grand Slam. In the following years the American, although technically more complete and powered, thanks to a longer racket built especially for him, by a service that touched 200 kms/h, would collect only crumbs in the other three Grand Slam finals played: in 1995 against Muster again in Paris and in 1996 in Australia, against Becker, and New York, against Sampras.
On the other hand, Edberg neither knew that 1989's would be his first and only great opportunity to win the only major tournament that, at the end of his career, would be missing in his record. Edberg, who would go on to win another title at Wimbledon and two US Opens, always defeating Michael Chang along the way, had only received the pleasure of winning a rematch against the American, in four sets in the third round of the 1996 French Open, the year of his retirement. An award that would not erase the regret for those just six of 25 break points exploited in the 1989 final.
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