March 11, 2017

Michael Chang

(info about Michael Chang)

The different aspects to consider in training

Thomas Kieller

Michael Chang: Tennis player.

Combative and determined, Michael has delivered numerous exalting matches where he mainly played from the back of the court. Fighter at heart, he would not abdicate easily. With his physical playing style, he was trying to recuperate every ball on the court. Besides, in 1989, he won the tough way the French Open by disposing of big names of the time. He became the youngest champion of a Grand Slam tournament at the age of 17 years old. One should add to this known victory the 33 other championships that he won in singles. His performance led him in 1996 to the 2nd place in the world ranking of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). Certainly, the tennis supporters will remember his stunning runs during his career on the base line or when he went to the net. He provoked spectacular rallies that have marked the imaginary of many.

The phone-interview took place on March 2, 2017 at 9:45 when Michael was in Orange City, United States.

Attitude on the court

Thomas Kieller: You won the French Open in 1989 at the age of 17 years old against the Swedish Stefan Edberg in an epic five sets (6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2). You had a totally different playing style than him. What was the difference that made you win that day?

Michael Chang: Well, I think it’s a combination of different things. Obviously, playing on clay will generally help the baseliner a little bit more. The ball bounces slower on that surface. And it’s certainly harder to play service and volley tennis, but Stefan did it very well. He made it all the way to the final match. I think I had a little bit of confidence going in because I beat him earlier that year. So, it definitely helps me going in the match.

Thomas: The situation was a bit special with what was happening that week in China, particularly in Tiananmen Square...

Michael: The whole tournament was surrounded by the events in Tiananmen. It was really a down time for Chinese people around the world. I wanted to go out there, to do well and to win. And also, in a way, I wanted to put a smile on Chinese people’s faces during a time where there was not so much to smile about. So definitely, there was a greater purpose than just me winning.

Thomas: Before the match against Edberg, you had a difficult confrontation in the round of 16 versus the strong Ivan Lendl. You had some severe leg cramps. What is the attitude that one must adopt to win a long Grand Slam tournament?

Michael: It goes without saying that the French Open is the most difficult tournament physically. I don’t think there will be a lot of players who will disagree with me on that. It’s on clay, 3 of 5 sets to win a match and seven consecutive matches in order to win the whole tournament. It’s not an easy thing. Believe me. Yes, there is a part of physical conditioning but mentally you have to be prepared. You have to be ready to play.

Thomas: During your career you were a great baseliner and you were especially really good on recuperating balls. You play a physical game. Did you train a lot physically?

Michael: Yes definitely. You have to train physically in order to be able to perform out there. There is no question about it. You have to do on court physical and also off court. At that level, it plays a very important role. I think all the players work really hard that aspect of the game.

I remember that I really worked hard to prepare for the 1989 French Open in order to be ready. I did five sets against Ivan Lendl in the round of 16, five sets against Stefan Edberg in the finals and also I did four sets in the quarter-finals and another one in the semi-finals1. So obviously, you have to be ready to go.

Everybody trains a little bit differently but it is certain that if the physical conditioning is not there you will not be able to win a Grand Slam tournament especially the French Open.

Thomas: You had a lot of determination on the court. You were competing for every ball. But in tennis, it’s not only about training physically. How did you build this spirit?

Michael: I think part of it is my style. It was my personality as well to go out there and to fight for every ball. You know I was not the biggest player out there. I was not going to be able to overpower my opponents like some other players would do. For me, it is important to play smart. Obviously, the effort that I gave before and during the match were a crucial part of the way I played.

Training of a tennis player

Thomas: Since December 2013, you are part of the coaching staff of the Japanese player Kei Nishikori. Is there some resemblance in his play with your playing style?

Michael: Yes, there is definitely a similarity but there are also some differences as well. Playing from the baseline, understanding court positioning and all of that are very similar. However, Key plays with more fire power that I did. I probably fight more for balls than he does. Nevertheless, overall there are a lot of similarities. That’s one thing which makes it easier to coach him. In a way, he can relate to some of the things I’m saying.

Thomas: An English professional rugbyman told me one day, he had admiration for tennis players because it’s an individual sport. If you have a bad day, you will probably lose. Everything is on you the player when you play singles. You already talked about the physical aspect, but as a coach, do you put a lot of emphasis on that?

Michael: Yes obviously! You know physical conditioning does not simply help the player to perform well but it will also give him confidence. When you know that you are physically fit and you are strong enough that you can last long tough matches, it gives you the confidence to get through in a lot of tough moments.

Thomas: And do you talk about the psychological aspect of the game in order to cope with the difficulties?

Michael: It really depends on the player. Obviously, it is something I do address. But every player is a little bit different. So, you cannot necessarily take the same mentality and approach towards every single player. Personally, I will look at it from an individual standpoint and go from there.

Thomas: We all know that in tennis there is so much to work on (physical and mental aspects and also strategy wise). For example, with Nishikori, you focus on what?

Michael: I think physically he is stronger. It was an important part that we worked in the past few years. His confidence and believing in himself have also been very important parts. Moreover, there are a lot of smaller things that we have worked on. But the two first aspects that I have told you were very important.

Thomas: We can understand that to become a good player, it is a really long process...

Michael: There is no question. In any sport or anything you want to do, there is no easy road. Otherwise, anybody could be the best. So, you have to come to expect that when you have a challenge, you have to work at it. You have to go step by step, little by little.

And you have to take in consideration the strengths and the weaknesses of the player. You have to work on those things in order to have a balance overall. You will realize that some things will come quickly and some things will take time. Understanding that helps in the process of taking care of both.

Thomas: During your professional career, you had several coaches: your father Joe Chang, the Spaniard José Higueras and your older brother Carl Chang. Did you learn a lot from them concerning the approach you need to have between a coach and a player?

Michael: Yes, I have great appreciation for what they have done in my career. Being now a coach, gives me a different perspective. There is no question that I have learned a tremendous amount from my dad, José and my brother Carl. They have been instrumental coaches in helping me reaching a great level of success.

Kei Nishikori and Michael Chang: Having a good moment on the court.

Thomas: If we go back to you as a coach of Kei Nishikori, is it fundamental that there is respect on both sides? The philosophy in coaching seems different in tennis if we compare with some team sports.

Michael: Yes! You have to be able to communicate well. The chemistry has to be there. If there is no chemistry, it does not matter what you say. If the player does not respect you, it does not matter also. If you tell him the right things but he does not want to listen that’s not good either. So yes there must be respect and camaraderie there. We have to know that we are both working on the same goal. That way, it makes everything easier.

I think that sometimes you have to be personal and other times you have to be tough. Also, there are situations that you don’t have to say anything. There is a combination of different times for different things. You have to be wise and pick the good moment.

Thomas: Thanks Michael for your output concerning tennis.

Michael: You are welcome!

1. Michael Chang’s path at the 1989 French Open (seven matches): round 1 – Eduardo Masso (6-7, 6-3, 6-0, 6-3), round 2 – Pete Sampras (6-1, 6-1, 6-1), round 3 – Francisco Roig (6-0, 7-5, 6-3), round 4 – Ivan Lendl (4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3), quarter-finals – Ronald Agenor (6-4, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6), semi-finals – Andrei Chesnokov (6-1, 5-7, 7-6, 7-5) and finals – Stefan Edberg (6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2).