Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - UTennis: Unknown Rebels
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UTennis: Unknown Rebels 05/21/2009 - 5:21 PM

Rarely are tennis matches, or sporting events of any kind, so closely tied up with world political events as they were over the course of the 1989 French Open. The tournament occurred just as Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protests were winding to their horrifying conclusion. One of the billions watching all of it unfold was Michael Chang. He and his mother were “glued to the TV in Paris,” he told me recently. “It made winning a tennis match seem like peanuts.” The moment inspired Chang, he said, “to try to put a few smiles on Chinese faces around the world.” It inspired him so much that the 17-year-old overcame two of the game’s all-time greats, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg, in fifth sets on his way to winning the only Grand Slam of his career.

But it wasn’t just the victory that people remember, it was the way Chang won. More than any other player in history, he did whatever it took. For the June issue of TENNIS Magazine, I wrote an article about his 1989 Roland Garros run, with special attention to his anarchic fourth-round win over Lendl (who at first told me he "couldn't remember" anything about the match, then proceeded to give me a detailed list of everything that had gone wrong that day). The title of the piece, which you can find here on, is “The June 5th Incident.” It’s a reference to the term the Chinese government would use to describe what had happened at Tiananmen: They called it, in good, bland, Orwellian tradition, “The June 4th Incident.” The next day, that incident would be given its most lasting image, when a lone civilian, forever to be called “The Unknown Rebel,” faced down a line of four government tanks and brought them to a halt. That same day, Chang took the court against Lendl In Paris. Below are clips from both of those two interrelated events, each epochal in its own way.

While Chang took inspiration from what was going on in his parents’ ancestral homeland, another 17-year-old was taking her inspiration from Chang during Roland Garros that year. Arantxa Sanchez (not yet Vicario), wearing the same ugly-but-now-iconic striped Reebok shirt as the American, pulled off what may have been an even more improbable upset when she came back to beat world No. 1 Steffi Graf 7-5 in the third set to win her own first major. At this point, Graf was coming off her Golden Slam of 1988, she’d already won the Australian Open in ’89, and she would go on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open again. But on this day the domineering German met her match in stubborn grit in the form of Sanchez. Above are the final three games of their final. You can find pretty much the entire match on YouTube if you so desire.

—First, let me apologize for the commentary of NBC’s Joanne Russell. Amateurish at best. On the one hand I’m glad Bud Collins—“Fräulein Forehand!” “Barcelona Bumblebee!” “eyeball to eyeball!” “net cord!” Shut up!—had gone down to the court by this point. On the other hand, it meant more Russell.

—Sanchez’s shots were very makeshift at this point. Little backswing or snap through contact. I was never a fan of hers when she played—always rooted for Graf, except when she played Sabatini in major finals—but I knew even then that Sanchez was one of the most intelligent competitors I'd ever see. She was intelligent because, like a good pool player, she never forced herself to hit a difficult shot. She kept the ball far from any line and well over the net. But she wasn’t a pusher; like Andy Murray, she could control a point from a seemingly defensive and reactive position.

—Graf at her peak here, but as always she struggled with the topspin backhand. Amazing how Sanchez had her on the run.

—Graf takes a bathroom break just before Sanchez serves for the match. I guess gamesmanship is eternal, though apparently Graf had food poisoning earlier in the tournament. So, 20 years later, I’ll let it slide.

—It seems from this clip that Graf served for the match. How many people would have believed that a 17-year-old relative unknown would break her in that spot? If Sanchez hadn’t come back, Steffi would have won double calendar-year Slams. Talk about unbreakable records; that would go right up there with Johnny van der Meer’s two straight no-hitters.

—Ah, the famous ball-holder on Arantxa's back. Looks like you could wind up her and watch her run all day.

—Watch the Sanchez moves around when she sets up to return serve. She looks like she has light feet, like Andre Agassi always did.

—Sanchez must have been frustrating to play because of her counter-punching ability. Go hard into her forehand and you better make it a clean winner, or it’s coming back fast and deep.

 —1989, like 1968, was a year when revolution was in the air, from Berlin to Moscow to Prague to Bucharest all the way to Beijing. In ’68, it reached the streets of Paris; in ’89, it reached its tennis courts, where a new generation of champions was born.


I'm back tomorrow to preview this year’s French. All this talk of ’89 has me wishing for some fresh-faced kids to come from out of nowhere and upend the men’s and women’s draws. If they’re out there, I can’t see them yet.


Posted by Mr Rick 05/21/2009 at 06:30 PM

"It inspired him so much that the 17-year-old overcame two of the game’s all-time greats, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg, in fifth sets on his way to winning the only Grand Slam of his career."

I never thought to link Michael Chang's FO win to Tiananmen Square. Its amazing now to realize much this event inspired him.

That also got me thinking of the female tennis player from China who did so well in Wimbledon last year who was donating her winnings to support relief efforts in China after that terrible earthquake. You couldn't help but root for her. And she was definately inspired - she played the best tennis of her career and got great results from all her hard work on the court.

I am sure many get weary of the ego-centeredness of being a professional athlete, and it must feel wonderful to find something important outside of yourself also worth playing for. Tennis seems like such a lonely sport in some ways, especially singles - you are out there on the court all by yourself, no coach to talk to - the cheese stands alone. It must be hard to keep yourself pumped up sometimes. Most tennis players seem to get a lot out of the team events like Davis Cup, even the very top players like Rafa and Roger, because they can play for their country, not just themselves, and celebrate victories with a whole team of countrymen.

Posted by Mr Rick 05/21/2009 at 06:30 PM

oh, and I forgot to say Thanks Steve for a great piece!

Posted by Mr.X 05/21/2009 at 07:06 PM

Interesting thoughts on Arantxa, Steve.
It's funny how in Spain, specially at the beginning of his career, Nadal was considered somehow the male Arantxa, because of his grinding style and never-say-die attitude on court. He's proved later that he is a far better player, but those parts of his game where what first made him an idol here, as we love to see players who appear to be thinking "you'll have to destroy me to take me off this court"
Lendl's reaction when he sees Chang standing there in MP is just priceless: "Hey umpire, WTF is he doing there? Make him go back, damnit!"
By the way, congratulations on your article about Chang that appears in the main page. Very moving experience, indeed

Posted by naughty T.... tennistically 05/21/2009 at 07:14 PM

Thanks for a great article Steve.. but that clip is the first time I have tried to watch Sanchez Vicarios game since she retired. Two minutes in and I had to stop. It is so fugly as to be painful. I hated her play then and I still hate it... maybe I have a thing about the Spanish.

Posted by Master Ace 05/21/2009 at 09:12 PM

Even though Chang was more famous of defeating Lendl in 1989, he also stopped Edberg from obtaining the Career Slam.

Posted by jv 05/21/2009 at 09:54 PM

naughty T..., you don't have a thing about the basically know very little about tennis...

Posted by court12345 05/21/2009 at 10:45 PM

Count me among the minority who abhored Michael Chang's implying that his winning the French Open was somehow either religious or morally dictated. If I recall, he said God had wanted him to win the French Open that year.

Hubris, Arrogance and delusion all in one small package.

As an individual winning an athletic competition, I grant you it could be inspiring and a great story.

But to connect a secular event with some moral stamp, especially as he was playing the great infidel STefan Edberg...(and we all know how the Almight wanted to punish Edberg) makes Chang seem a bit pathethic.

Posted by Nick 05/21/2009 at 11:02 PM

So Steve..

After watching this clip of Sanchez-Graf, tell me exactly what it is you have agaist Jo Anne Russell? You've made comments before about how listening to Mary Carillo today "stresses" you out. But you've told us before in these posts how much you like Dick Enberg even today, who's clearly nothing but an incoherent babbling talking-head. Is it a woman thing that gets under your skin?

And what's with the comment about their Adidas shirts being "ugly"? What kind of guy would ever even notice such a thing?

Posted by naughty T.... tennistically 05/21/2009 at 11:24 PM

aaaaah another exxxxshpert.
good to see

Posted by 40 L'Oeuf 05/22/2009 at 02:07 AM

What a load of bull from good ol' Chang, pfff. Back in 89, it was "God" that made him won Roland Garros, now he was inspired by Tiananmen Square "to try to put a few smiles on Chinese faces around the world"...yeah right, LOL !

Chang's only Slam was one of the biggest fluke and ugliest victory in the Open Era, which of course didn't happen again. Sorry Michael, but using God's name in vain back then or exploiting someone else's political couragea today, wont erase the memory of all your dirty tricks, especially to those who watched them 20 years ago...what a clown !

Posted by Carrie 05/22/2009 at 02:28 AM

Thanks for this Steve.

I remember how back as a very young teen how much I enjoyed both of these two winning that year. They were scrappy and they won.

Since I was young then- I am actually very glad that I watched then in the limited media so I could enjoy it to its fullest. I imagine today on the internet they would have been torn to shreds because they did not play the traditional beautiful game. They planted the seed in me for the my love of Seles, the Rafa and the Safina. Very nice back then to watch them winning with not having to hear how they were tearing down a "beautiful" game but just enjoy the actual beauty of scrap without having to defend it.

Posted by enjoygame 05/22/2009 at 02:39 AM jordan shoes 1

Posted by Tomas 05/22/2009 at 03:22 AM

Steve, great post (as always, BTW).
Only one minor comment on the "Arantxa Sanchez (not yet Vicario)". Arantxa's name has always been Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. The "Vicario" name is not because marriage or anything like that: it is her mother family name. All spanish names are build from father's family name (Sánchez in her case) and mother's name (Vicario).
You can see that her brothers Javier and Emilio (ATP pros too) are also called "Sánchez Vicario".
And please... keep the post coming in. I enjoy them so much.

Posted by Eric 05/22/2009 at 04:08 AM

Steve, your 2 features on the R16 match between Chang and Lendl make Lendl sound boorish, even now, so many years after the match was played. Is that intentional on your part? Is Lendl still so fiercely proud and guarded even after all these years? I always thought Lendl got a hard time from the media, and that he was a great, misunderstood champion (that SI covers would famously mock). Twenty years later and we're running the same spin on it?

Posted by Eric 05/22/2009 at 04:32 AM

By the way does anyone know what actually happened to the unknown rebel? And by that I mean the faceless, heroic Chinese guy that faced down the tanks, not the racket-weilding Chinese guy who piggy-backed onto this moment and capitalized on his happening to be of the same ethnic descent as the true iconic figure of that day. Come on, Michael.

Posted by embug 05/22/2009 at 06:58 AM

Thanks so much Steve for all your articles about the history of the game as a part of international political scenes. I've learned a lot these past few months.

Posted by skip1515 05/22/2009 at 07:52 AM

The first time I saw Sanchez-Vicario was at (I think) Rosemont College, where she played an exo with local bright light Kathy Jordan. I had heard about Sanchez-Vicario already – she was maybe 14 or 15 at the time – and was underwhelmed upon watching her. She appeared incapable of hitting through a wet paper towel, and possessed of the same strategic outlook as a backboard. Once again, my powers of prognostication were truly amazing. (not)

Interestingly, given her rep as a retriever extraordinaire, she was a fine doubles player of the volleying kind (!), and had one of the better overheads in the WTA. Curiouser and curiouser.

Chang was the fastest player I ever saw until Nadal came on the scene. Even now I wonder if my moving the Spaniard to the head of the class isn't because his exploits of speed are fresh in my mind, while Chang's are more distant memories. Everyone else's gets might be good, Chang's were outrageous.

I always thought he was (ironically) seduced by Satan in his quest for more service juice. I mean no disrespect by the imagery, but it was painful watching him hunt, in vain, for ownership of the Big Serve panacea while seemingly ignoring his real strengths.

Posted by BJ 05/22/2009 at 11:05 AM

Loved the "unknown rebel" footage. I had forgotten that he actually climbed onto the tank. Bold, iconic stuff, indeed.

In that same vein, I forgot how bold Chang was after serving underhand to Lendl. Everyone remembers that play, but I forgot (or never noticed) that after he hits the netcord winner, he actually pumsp both first twice, screams and walks AT Lendl. Crazy.

Posted by Mr Rick 05/22/2009 at 12:16 PM

Eric - try Wikipedia - they have some stuff about the "Tank Man"

Posted by Well Left 05/22/2009 at 12:38 PM

Tomic isn't coming out of nowhere (won junior AO 2008), he's like a junior Djokovic and he's in that quarter of the draw.

No love for Glatch? Serena's quarter, ok, that's a huge stretch.

Posted by omar 05/22/2009 at 12:56 PM


Chang was more quick than he was fast, great initial bursts in either direction. Gerulaitis is another guy who gets overlooked but was one of the quickest players ever. Guys like Nadal and Borg weren't as quick but were faster overall.

But really how quick/fast you are depends on how great you play. Nadal certainly isn't faster today than he was 2 years ago, yet no one was calling him the fastest player ever 2 years ago. The better your game, the more your talents are given additional hyperbole.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. Rafa and JJ for FO Champions 2009!!! 05/22/2009 at 01:03 PM

*late to the party*

Hey all. :)

Lovely piece though - interesting to hear that about Chang. At least he thought about the world outside of the tour.

*loves pool/snooker reference*

Oh, naughty T, LOL - typically I LOVED Arantxa. ;-)

Posted by skip1515 05/22/2009 at 03:22 PM


I'm not sure about Borg and Nadal being faster, but your comment reminds me of something John McPhee wrote about Clark Graebner in "Levels of The Game". He said Graebner was quick from A to B, but not A to B to C. I thought it an insightful analysis and I've applied it to many a player I've seen since reading it.

Certainly Chang had an incredible first step, and yes, part of one's reputation as a quick (or fast) player depends on whether you actually get the ball back once you get there, and then how *much* you do with it after that. How much famous players are faster than non-famous players in the public's eye is another matter.

Posted by Feedforward 05/22/2009 at 03:48 PM

Chilling watching that young Chinese man defy the tanks especially with that music as backdrop. Even more today, somehow, than when it happened. Just stunning what heroism.

I think I have read what happened to that young man, but have forgotten to my discredit.

Posted by felizjulianidad 05/25/2009 at 03:40 AM

Naughty T, stop fancying yourself as a connoisseur of aesthetic and sporting excellence, and get an education instead.

Posted by Be Creative 07/01/2009 at 10:32 AM

very nice post thanks!!! i really like it

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