The red clay, the sliding players and the Eiffel Tower in the distance are familiar sights at the French Open.
But something less well known might see a reprise this year – an underarm serve or two, 30 years after Michael Chang’s infamous shot at Roland Garros.
It appears tennis is seeing a rise in the unorthodox serve, sparked by Nick Kyrgios’ underarm effort in his highly charged win against Rafael Nadal in Acapulco in February.
But it was the 17-year-old Chang’s cheeky serve to bamboozle behemoth Ivan Lendl, the world No.1, in the fourth round in 1989 that remains the benchmark.
“It obviously surprised him,” American Chang told CNN Sport. “But I think it shook him up a bit because after that point, it became not just a physical battle but a mental one as well.”
The ever controversial Kyrgios also struck the underarm serve at March’s Miami Open and throughout the buildup to the French Open, including on the first point against Daniil Medvedev in Rome’s first round.
Others, including France’s Pierre Hugues Herbert and Romania’s Monica Niculescu, followed suit as they sought to take their opponents by surprise. Then in the first round in Paris Monday, Alexander Bublik – no stranger, either, to the serve – used it and lost the point against Rudolf Molleker.
“Obviously they see one person do it and (think) ‘It’s not bad if I do it,’” Kyrgios told tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg in an NCR podcast which aired a day before he was defaulted at the Italian Open for losing his cool.
For Chang, who was being tormented by cramps at the time, it opened the door to one of the biggest upsets in tennis history and he went on to beat Stefan Edberg in the final to become the youngest men’s grand slam winner in the Open Era.
“Time goes by very fast,” said Chang, whose sole major triumph ended a 34-year American men’s drought at Roland Garros
“I played 16-plus years on tour, and even that in itself went by very fast. So the French Open has always been very vivid in my mind and certain aspects, it’s almost like it just happened yesterday.”
‘Spur of the moment’
Chang, whose parents grew up in Taiwan, recalls being glued to the television that fortnight watching the protests unfold in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
But on the court he was making history of his own.
Having won three French Opens, Lendl appeared to be easing into the quarterfinals after taking the first two sets 6-4 6-4.
Chang, part of a golden US generation in men’s tennis that included Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Todd Martin, took the next two 6-3 6-3 to force a decider.
The odds were still against the quick counterpuncher, despite the shift in momentum. Lendl’s 13-3 record in his previous 16 grand slam fifth sets perfectly illustrated why he was considered the fittest men’s player of the era.
Chang led by a break at 4-3 but knew closing out the contest would be difficult, especially with those painful cramps. At changeovers, he didn’t dare sit down for fear of not being able to get back up.
At 15-30 in the eighth game, he made a “spur of the moment” decision to hit the serve.
“My serve was very soft at the time because I couldn’t really use my legs, just basically rolling my arm over,” said Chang.
“Being down 15-30 I was on the verge of losing serve again. I was thinking to myself, ‘I gotta hit something different here because sooner or later Ivan is going to pick up what he needs to do and I’m going to end up losing.’”
Chang’s serve landed deep in the service box, Lendl moved in to strike a forehand, but couldn’t place it into the corner. He had no other choice given his court positioning to keep moving toward the net.
Chang’s flat forehand passing shot clipped the net, making what would have been a difficult volley even harder. Lendl had no chance.
The avid fisherman reeled in his foe.
“Ivan being the professional that he is, he would have trained for every possible scenario, every possible circumstance, but this was something that was quite new,” said Chang.
“It was a bit unfortunate for Ivan that my pass happened to clip the top of the tape. It was probably even more annoying that it happened on top of having to return an underhand serve from a 17-year-old who was cramping.”
Television cameras caught one fan on center court with his hands on his face, shaking in apparent disbelief. Viewers around the world felt the same.
“The crowd went absolutely nuts,” said Chang. “I was pumped up because I was just like, ‘Hey, let’s sneak out this game,’ because it was a big difference in being 15-40 or 30-30. From then on it seemed like the tide turned in my favor. I can’t explain why it did but for some reason it did.”