In June 1989, a 17-year-old Californian named Michael Chang defeated Stefan Edberg in the French Open final to become the youngest men's Grand Slam champion in history. I was 11 that spring, and I woke up early every morning to catch the live broadcasts before heading off to my tennis lessons—one of countless Chinese-Americans who exchanged his graphing calculator for a racket after watching Chang slay one Goliath after another.
Well, that's how the story's supposed to go. The truth is, I was rooting for Edberg. But the myth of Chang as every Asian's tennis hero is a persistent one that will grow stronger after his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this month. The platitudes began this January, when the inductees were announced, and are nicely paraphrased by the Seattle Weekly, which characterized Chang as a "breakthrough figure for Asian Americans" and someone who disproved the stereotype of "dweeby Asian kids on the chess team or math club and their SAT scores. Chang was tough, and a great example to all the kids who have since followed him onto the court."
The person most responsible for my interest in tennis was not Chang but my fifth-grade classmate Brynne Stevens. My family didn't belong to the Fort Douglas Country Club or own horses, but I figured that playing her sport might make her notice me. (It didn't.) After Brynne, it was Edberg. And after Edberg, Pete Sampras. It was never Chang, who actually did more to reinforce stereotypes about Chinese people than to dispel them.
Even if you allow that Chang influenced Chinese-Americans to participate in sports beyond the Academic Decathlon, he still shackled us with another stereotype. Thanks to him, we were all seen as determined counterpunchers, tireless tongue-lolling retrievers who compensated for our lack of physical gifts by outlasting our opponents because we couldn't outplay them.
Before Chang, we were free to dream about becoming Boris Becker, that Teutonic badass who strutted around the baseline, blasting aces, or Edberg, the square-jawed Swede with a stylish attacking game and a hot blond girlfriend. Now we were stuck with the introverted, 5-foot-9 (on his best day) Chang, a devout Christian with a cream-puff serve who scrapped his way to the French Open title with borderline bush-league tricks (moonballing, crowding the service line on returns, the instantly legendary underhand serve). Worst of all, his dragon-lady mother once stuck her hand down his shorts after a practice to check if they were wet. At the Junior Davis Cup! In front of his friends! After Becker retired, he impregnated a woman in a restaurant's cleaning closet; when Chang hung up his sticks, he studied theology at Biola University.
Chang didn't defy Chinese stereotypes; he simply ushered them into the arena. He was hardworking, intelligent, humble, forever prepubescent. His parents, Joe and Betty, were research chemists. His older brother, Carl, went to Berkeley. When the boys were young, Joe, in what seems to me to be classic Chinese cheapskate fashion, scrimped by taking notes during Carl's lessons so that he could replicate them for Michael afterward.
Michael was a junior national champion at 15. He won his first tour event at 16, his first Slam at 17. He was, in short, a prodigy, cocooned by his family, which became known on tour as the Chang Gang. Mother Betty, radiating overprotectiveness, chaperoned him. Joe handled the finances, Carl coached him. They kept to themselves, which struck others as insular and struck me as very, very Chinese.
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