Two of the great minds in tennis, each enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, celebrate their birthdays today. Gigi Fernandez is 53. Michael Chang turns 45. That they conduct themselves in quite different ways is yet another case of how tennis is a showcase of unabated personality.
The first time I interviewed Fernandez I was warned: If Gigi doesn’t think you know what you’re talking about, look out. As we sat along the court watching a WTA doubles match, Fernandez predicted the shots each player would strike – each time spot on. Indeed, no one hands you 17 Grand Slam doubles titles and a pair of Olympic gold medals.
Years later, Fernandez sat for the longest single interview of my career – a five-hour end-to-end look at her life. Prompt to cite both her good moments and bad choices, passionate and demanding, Fernandez that day was 36 years old and been retired for three years. Still in the decompression mode after tennis, Fernandez then had little desire to hold a tennis racquet. But soon, her love for the game rekindled – in a major way. Fernandez coached college tennis for a time, but even more notably, has over the last 10 years coached thousands of recreational players, a full-blown business devoted to doubles titled “Masters Doubles with Gigi.” There’s a traveling Gigi roadshow that conducts clinics all over the country. There’s instruction for teachers, Fernandez showing coaches how to teach doubles. And of course, there’s a website – gigifernandeztennis.com – that includes tips, videos, apps and more.
While Fernandez is a forthright extrovert, quick to express herself in the way you’d expect from a net-rusher, her fellow Pisces is quite the opposite. Michael Chang is deliberate, keen to reflect – but also like Fernandez, unblinking in his candor.
Over the course of Chang’s career, I wrote five lengthy feature articles about him. Often the pieces revolved around three subjects. First there was Chang’s quest to earn a second Grand Slam singles title. “Michael won his first as a boy,” his father, Joe, told me one morning at an indoor tennis club near Seattle. “He’d like to earn his second as a man.” That this didn’t happen – well, such is tennis.
The second topic was Chang’s belief in God. We journalists tend to be a rather secular lot, often jaded from having witnessed ample hypocrisy. At the time I first began to write about Chang, I’d also just met a future Tennis Channel colleague, Mary Carillo. For reasons I couldn’t fathom at the time, Carillo urged me to examine Chang’s spirituality. So with a boost from Carillo and my own curiosity, I pursued this line of questioning: If God was in Chang’s heart, and his heart was arguably his biggest weapon as a player, surely his spirituality needed to be explored. That his faith was tested amid the frustrations of not earning that second major added much texture to writing about Chang. Whether interviewing him at a tennis club, on a commercial shoot an hour west of Las Vegas, or while walking a golf course alongside his older brother Carl, Chang was always able to intelligently juxtapose his quest for one big result with his faith.
Third came Chang’s deep loyalty to his family, from parents Joe and Betty to Carl. Often a player as he ages will leave his family behind. But for Chang, the communal life of family was a genuine, desired path for coping with the demands and distractions of pro tennis. And Chang’s devotion was more than window dressing. Carl, an excellent player who’d lettered at UC Berkeley, became Michael’s coach, front and center for his best years.
Following his retirement at the end of 2003, Chang needed some time to acclimate himself to life outside the pro tennis bubble. In 2008, he married Amber Liu, a former pro. They’ve since had three children. And by 2014, Chang returned to tennis in a major way, working with Kei Nishikori.
So if in manner, Fernandez and Chang are polar opposites, in a fundamental way, they occupy common ground: two teachers, deeply in love with tennis.