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Column: San Diego ‘such a great move’ for French Open winner Michael Chang

How much did winning the 1989 French Open change the life of Michael Chang? How did becoming the youngest man to win a Grand Slam title, at age 17, astronomically alter his universe?

Start with on-court career earnings that eclipsed $19.1 million. Count the sponsorships, appearance fees and any number of dollars-and-cents definers. Gauge how shuffling across the red clay at Roland Garros in a five-set match against Stefan Edberg recharted his path.

The 49-year-old points to a photo from a stranger.

“When I won the French Open, we lived in a very modest home in Placentia (northeast of Anaheim),” said Chang, who’s arrived this week to coach Kei Nishikori at the San Diego Open. “One day, this one young lady come up to me in Japan. She goes, ‘Michael, can I have your autograph?’

“I signed it and she said, ‘By the way, I took a picture in front of your house.’ I was like, c’mon. How do you know where my house is? She said, ‘You want to see?’ She showed me, literally standing in front of my house.

“I was absolutely shocked. That was eye-opening for me.”

As top men’s players bounce around the Barnes Tennis Center, striving to bottle that type of fame no matter the ensuing chaos, Chang retraced memories of the tournament that changed everything.

Chang blazed a tennis trail at a time most teens waged war with acne and awkward school dances. No one younger had captured a major until Monica Seles at 16 and Martina Hingis, 12 days younger, crept past.

The former student at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, who dropped out in 10th grade to chase a professional career, reached a spotlight so blinding, it reshaped a continent.

“It certainly opened up a lot of doors for me in Asia,” Chang said. “I was starting to get a name there a little bit anyway, but because of the French Open and what happened in Tiananmen (Square, during protests in 1989), the floodgates opened up after that.

“Before I won the French, there weren’t that many tournaments in Asia. They had the tournaments in Tokyo, a couple in Hong Kong. The next five to seven years, there were tournaments in Shanghai, tournaments in Jakarta, tournaments in Singapore. They just started popping up all over the place. It just completely changed the dynamic.”

Those dusty recollections sparked a fresh thought.

British comet Emma Radacanu, at 18, became the youngest player to win a Grand Slam singles title since 2004 during the most recent U.S. Open.

“It changed my life in so many different aspects,” Chang said. “I think about how this U.S. Open will change Raducanu’s life, as well. Asking for autographs and pictures, the press requests, the time with sponsors, it goes up tremendously. It’s not just about tennis anymore. You’re not just playing tennis, you’re balancing all these other obligations.

“To be honest with you, it can be harder than playing the tennis.”

Chang’s road to superstardom in his sport began in cold, snowy Minnesota. A decision to ditch the white stuff falling from the sky to play between the sun-splashed white lines of Southern California redirected his world.

“After a while, my mom was just like, ‘You know what, what are we doing here?’ ” Chang said with a wry smile. “After one too many winters shoveling the snow to get the car out of the garage to go to work it was like, ‘Let’s go to someplace warmer.’ It was just, ‘Why not San Diego?’

“It was such a great move for us.”

The USTA’s SoCal Section became a meat grinder in Chang’s day, pushing and polishing his game. Pete Sampras played there. So did Andre Agassi, hunting for better competition away from his Las Vegas home. On the women’s side, the lineup included Tracy Austin, Lindsey Davenport and the Williams sisters.

All those days scrambling around Morley Field primed him for the baseline rigors to come.

“It was a great gathering of tennis fanatics,” said Chang, who took to area courts when he was 7. “San Diego is such a great place to play tennis.”

It all led to 1989.

On the way to the French Open final against Edberg, Chang knocked off world No. 1 Ivan Lendl. Those wins seeded a run of Grand Slam finals, starting with another deep run in the 1995 French and 1996 Australian and U.S. opens.

Any regrets?

“Probably the one that stings the most is the U.S. Open in ’96,” Chang said. “For two reasons. If I had won, I would have won a U.S. Open. But I also would have been ranked No. 1 in the world.”

Chang missed climbing to the top of the tennis mountain in two ways.

In a field loaded with stars ranging from Agassi and Goran Ivanisevic to Boris Becker and Richard Krajicek, Chang survived it all until falling to Sampras in three sets.

The quarterfinals nearly made a No. 1 ranking an afterthought. Sampras, fighting a stomach bug, fell behind unseeded Alex Corretja of Spain — facing match point in a fifth set tiebreaker.

Chang remembers watching Sampras on the ropes, choosing correctly like a soccer goalie on a penalty kick and flinging his racket at what seemed a clear crosscourt winner that dribbled over the net.

“I don’t have any regrets, because I know all of those finals, I gave 100 percent effort, which is all that I can give,” Chang said. “On that shot, I remember going, ‘Oh, man.’ Because I knew had Pete lost that match, Pete was the toughest player at the time, I would have been No. 1, as well.

“I was literally one point from becoming No. 1 in the world. But if you played 100 percent, what’s to regret?”

So, the legacy that defines Chang remains ending a 34-year American drought in Paris.

“I’ve been blessed to have the career I had,” he said.

In many ways, picture perfect.

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Chang on Djokovic, Nadal

Former San Diego County resident and 1989 French Open winner Michael Chang marvels at Novak Djokovic threatening to win tennis’ rare calendar Grand Slam in 2021.

Still, Chang feels the star made a strategic misstep.

The slam came down to the U.S. Open. Djokovic reached the finals, but fell to Daniil Medvedev in straight sets.

“I think he made a mistake to play mixed doubles in Tokyo (at the Summer Olympics),” Chang said. “I think that took a little bit of energy out of him. Tokyo at that time, it was extremely hot and very, very humid. His team was telling him, ‘Don’t play mixed. Don’t play mixed.’

“I give Novak a lot of credit. He’s had a phenomenal year. One match away from a calendar grand slam is incredible. I think he ran out of gas a little bit.”

Considering Rafael Nadal’s run in the French Open, where he collected 13 of his 20 career majors, tests logic as well.

“It’s tough to fathom, to be honest with you,” Chang said. “His style on that surface and because he’s lefty, as well, his shots just take to the surface and the clay so well. He’s just so tough there.”

San Diego Open

To learn more about schedules and tickets for the $600,000 San Diego Open, the city’s debut ATP tour event, visit: Barnessdopen.com.