Michael Chang has a way of taking people by surprise.
I'm waiting in a hotel lobby, surrounded by a forest of tanned tennis professionals, when suddenly, I realize Chang is patiently standing in front of me, all 5-foot-9 inches of him. He walked unnoticed through the throng of his 6-foot peers. Without tennis gear, fans, or photographers, he hardly resembles the athletic entourage around us. With his quiet, almost shy demeanor, he doesn't fit the profile of a camera-mugging, professional sports figure.
And yet for nearly a decade, this atypical 26-year-old has been God's ambassador to the tennis world and beyond.
Although Chang showed promise as a teenager on the tennis circuit, his now-legendary 1989 French Open victory shocked everyone, himself included. Tennis fans know the story well.
Chang, at age 17, wasn't supposed to advance beyond the round of 16 players, considering his opponent was Ivan Lendl, the highest-ranked player in the world. After losing the first two sets to Lendl on the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, most fans considered Chang defeated. But then the surprises began.
Chang used innovative defensive strategies to come from behind and win the next three sets, despite battling leg cramps and exhaustion.
Then, as if one incredible upset were not enough, he pulled another improbable, come-from-behind victory over Stefan Edberg to capture the title of French Open champion, the youngest man ever to win a Grand Slam tournament.
But Chang has another explanation, one that has stayed consistent through the years since he gave his life to Jesus Christ: "I wasn't playing out there. Jesus Christ is alive and well!"
Despite occasional injuries and the grueling nature of professional tennis, Chang has maintained a strong presence on the tour. Since 1991 he has ended each year ranked in the top ten and has climbed as high as number two in the world. Although he still looks as youthful as he did that summer in '89, Chang is now a 10-year veteran of the pro tennis circuit and Christianity's strongest advocate on tour.
Some feel his presence among the best players in the world is a testimony to his tenacity. Says
Chang believes his continued success is testimony to something?or Someone?else entirely.
"People sometimes ask me, 'Don't you wish you were bigger?' There's a reason God made me 5-foot-9 in a world where the average height of players is 6-foot-2. If I'm able to go out and win a tournament, it's really to God's glory. It obviously has nothing to do with my height or anything else."
While he hasn't added any inches vertically since he turned pro, Chang has grown in his faith and in understanding his life's mission. Early in his career, he was much more consumed by a desire to win, a desire that naturally could have been fueled after his stunning French Open victory. However, Chang fractured his hip at the end of 1989 and was not 100 percent going into the 1990 season.
Chang describes the four weeks before the 1990 French Open as "the most difficult time of my career." During that stretch, he lost match after match, resulting in a "confidence level at an all-time low. I started to get ridiculed for my faith. People would say, 'Where's your God now?' But I realized that God was setting my priorities straight, that winning and losing was in his hands. My job was to remain focused on him."
Keeping God-centered is a goal for the entire Chang family. In fact, Michael considers himself just one part of a team that together strives to glorify God through tennis. His older brother, Carl, coaches him, and his parents and other relatives have an active role in his career.
While his parents were criticized earlier for being too controlling, Michael explains, "Asians tend to have more close-knit families, which some people didn't understand on tour. But I've been so blessed to have parents who were willing to sacrifice so much for me."
His gratitude towards his parents is perhaps an outgrowth of his increasing awareness and acceptance of his ethnic background. Although in his teen years he was quoted as saying, "I've never looked at myself as being Chinese," he has grown to acknowledge that this, too, is part of God's greater plan for him.
"I realize now that God made me Chinese for a reason," he says. "In my position, I can influence tremendously the Asian-Pacific region, to bring the gospel to them." Indeed, while Chang has a strong following in the United States, his popularity is exponentially greater in Asia, where he is almost singlehandedly responsible for an increased interest in the sport.
Chang believes that part of God's plan for allowing him to win the French Open in 1989 was to provide Chinese people a message of hope and victory in the midst of a tense political atmosphere. (The Tiananmen Square tragedy occurred just days before.)
"I felt God used me to show the world that you don't always have to be bigger or stronger to come out on top. When the Lord is with you and wants you to be victorious, you will be."
Although Chang has experienced victory over the years, he hasn't captured another Grand Slam title. However, knowing God, Michael assesses his success by different measures.
"It's not essential that I win another Grand Slam or become number one, although certainly it would be nice to do either or both of those things. Success for me is using my talents in the way that God wants me to use them. When you touch people in a Christ-like way, it lasts a lifetime. That's the way success should be defined."
Chang does feel, though, that his best tennis is ahead of him and that "God is waiting for the right time" to do even more through him. If Chang's past performances are any indication, there are many surprises ahead.
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