Former American tennis player Michael Chang spent a few weeks back at the start of his career playing in the Flow Invitational in Winston-Salem. Known for his speed and considered one of the best defensive baseliners of all time, Chang became the youngest male player to win a Grand Slam title when he won the 1989 French Open at the age of 17 years and four months and climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings in 1996.
After retiring in 2003, Chang was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2008. Currently, he is coaching Kei Nishikori, who made an appearance at the Winston-Salem Open in 2011.
Question: You and many of the other top Americans of your generation played in Winston-Salem in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, when it hosted the Flow Motors Invitational, an exhibition tournament. What memories do you have of those days in Winston-Salem?
Michael Chang: It was an exhibition that they had played at, I believe Wake Forest. I did play there a couple years early in my career, and, yeah, it was a lot of fun. It was a great atmosphere. They had great crowds and it was a good experience for me. I only played the tournament maybe a couple times. I remember one of my regrets was that they had given the players a car to drive for the entire week, and it was sponsored by Flow Honda. I was thinking, “Oh, it’d be so cool to drive a Prelude the whole week,” but I could never drive because I hadn’t gotten my license yet.
Q: How important is it to have the Emirates Airline US Open Series as a lead up to the US Open for the players?
MC: Ideally, they are going to want to play a bunch of the US Open Series tournaments. It’s really important preparation, but it’s not just preparation – they’re all big tournaments. You’ve got the two (ATP World Tour) Masters Series tournaments, and you’ve got the other, smaller tournaments, but they’re just so crucial in terms of gaining confidence and helping them really be up and ready to go and fully prepared to have the best possible US Open that they can.
Ideally, you’re going to want to play a good portion of these tournaments so you’re heading into the US Open going, “Hey, I got the matches that I need. I’m playing well. I’m very familiar, now, with the surface and I’m ready to go now to go cap it all off in New York.”
Q: Is it encouraging to see that there is a group of young American players all coming up, pushing each other, like your generation did?
MC: That’s really what I think helped our generation to excel. We had a good group of guys. Andre was actually already out on tour for a couple of years before we joined him, but between myself and Pete (Sampras), Andre, Jim Courier, MaliVai Washington, Todd Martin, David Wheaton, we had a good group of guys there that knew each other for a long, long time through juniors and we were all pushing each other to excel and to get better. Certainly, if you didn’t train hard and work hard you were at the back of the pack, and nobody wanted to be there. It was easy to gain confidence from one another and say, “Hey, well if this person did so well, why can’t I do just as well?” I’m hoping that’s what’s going to happen. I know the guys are training together and they get along pretty well, and you can expect that kind of camaraderie is going to help them get better as a group, going out on tour and playing against the best players in the world.
Q: With all the young talent on the tour nowadays, especially the American teenagers, could something similar be happening now at the Winston-Salem Open, where fans are getting a glimpse at future champions?
MC: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely a possibility. I think the first year (in Winston-Salem) I got a chance to play a Top-25 guy, and then lost to Andre (Agassi) in the next round. The next crop of young American players – we’ve got about 5 or 7 of them making their way and doing some damage and have been playing some great tennis – absolutely, it’s a great opportunity for them.
Q: The tennis industry is making it easier and more fun for kids to get into the game—and stay in the game. There are now courts, racquets and balls that are sized right for kids. How important is that to the game of tennis?
MC: I think it’s crucial. I think it’s really a combination of a few different things. I think it’s one thing to be exposed to the sport in a positive light. Obviously, if you’re a child and you’re seeing other kids going out there and having fun, then it’s easier to really embrace something like that. Certainly, for me if I wasn’t out there playing regular tennis I was out playing mini tennis. We’d take a piece of chalk and draw our own tennis lines and put like a string over the middle and a sheet over that and just play mini tennis, pretending we were playing the Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open, US Open, and that was a lot of fun. The idea of having 10 and Under Tennis I think is great for kids starting out.
The other thing I think is a really good experience for kids is to be able to see tennis first-hand, to be able to see tennis live. Because then when you’re able to see the crowd being excited, you’re able to see the players out there playing, the ballboys and just the atmosphere. For a kid to be able to sense that and be a part of that – I know when I had the opportunity to watch, I was like, “Wow, how cool would that be to one day be out there playing?” I would encourage parents and families, if you have the opportunity to take your children and your families, to be a part of the US Open or be part of one of the US Open Series tournaments. Go to the website, buy your tickets and take advantage. You don’t get a chance to see this kind of tennis live, in person, very often. I know a lot of families that unfortunately don’t have tournaments where they live and don’t get that opportunity to do that. Some people say, “Oh, just watch it on TV.” But for a child, the difference between seeing it in person and on TV – to be able to see the spin and the atmosphere – is completely different. I would take advantage of it if you have the opportunity, especially if you have kids interested in tennis. It’ll only fan that fire.