What are we to say about Michael Chang? Who was that 17-year old David who stood so placidly on Center Court at the French Open in 1989, waiting for Ivan Lendl, the mighty Goliath, to serve? "Watch him when a call goes against him," wrote the Los Angeles Times later that year. "He just bows his head, bounces the ball twice, raises his racket, serves. No outbursts. No shrieks. He never approaches the chair, the neck cords standing out in his throat, his face red, his language X-rated ... Michael has had a variety of tennis instructors over the years, but the four he relies on most are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."
Holding Serve, written with the help of Mike Yorkey, doesn't provide any answers to the enigma. But what it does is remind us that humanity is a strange species, and there are more kinds of being walking this earth than we might sometimes care to think. Michael Chang was, at 15, the youngest player ever to compete in Wimbledon. He was the youngest player ever to win a Grand Slam title. But that famous 1989 French Open has turned out to be the only Grand Slam he's ever won. It's as if he was born to be the boy David, and life's later conquests have somehow partially eluded him.
Consider this. When he traveled to distant championships in those early days, his mom went with him. They shared the same hotel room (to save on expenses), and she would cook up chicken noodles in the rice-cooker she always brought with her. Michael had a huge appetite, though he couldn't put on weight however hard he tried. He describes the night before the 1989 French Open final as follows: "That evening about 10pm, as Mom and I prepared to turn out the lights and go to sleep, I took out my New International Version Student Bible. I was in the habit of ending each day with 15 minutes of Bible reading. I liked to learn more about God and how much He loves us."
He reads King Solomon's Proverbs and in saying his prayers remembers "the Chinese people during the difficult time following the tragedy of Tiananmen Square" (which had occurred only days before). His final words are, "Goodnight, Mommy."
But the huge, the enormous paradox is that this pious middle-class son of Chinese immigrants, raised on the public courts of Southern California, won the French Open for the US after 494 other Americans -- some of them, no doubt, beer-swilling, loud-mouthed, sexually voracious -- had failed. No American male had managed to win the championship, played on its infamous red clay courts, since 1955, 24 years earlier. And who won? A 17-year old Christian, with eyes only for his Mommy with her chicken noodles, and his Student Bible. Even the name is significant. He's not Mike Chang or Mick Chang. He's Michael. And there he stands, waiting to receive serve, patient, unruffled, unperturbed, and ultimately, it would seem, inscrutable.
Sex is at the heart of it, of course, or rather the lack of it. What makes this boy tick, you ask, when he's so different from your average tough-guy sportsman, yet managed to beat them all at their own game? Michael Chang is disarmingly open about it in this book. He's still a virgin at 31, he writes, and saving himself for his eventual wife. She'll be of Chinese origin, he thinks, probably a Chinese American, and she'll be a Christian like him. Then on their wedding night he'll give her what will be hers alone, a gift no other woman on earth has ever known. So in the mean time Michael lives in his lake-side home outside Seattle, driving his boat to where he most likes to fish, reading his Bible, and wondering what to do now that his tennis career is coming to a close.