Michael Chang was just 15 when then-tournament director Charlie Pasarell first offered him a wildcard in Indian Wells. That was 1988. The Southern Californian would go on to win three titles here (1992, 1996, 1997) in a Hall-of-Fame career that included a rise to No. 2 and the Roland Garros crown in 1989, when he became the youngest male player ever to win a major. The Hall of Famer returned to his roots on Sunday afternoon to be honored with the Alan King Tennis Passion Award, named in honor of the late actor/comedian who was so closely associated with the BNP Paribas Open.
Q: Congratulations, Michael, on receiving the Passion Award. It’s got to be very meaningful for you, especially here where you had so much success as a player.
MICHAEL CHANG: This tournament is so close to my heart. I’ve gotten along so well with [tournament directors] Charlie [Pasarell|, Steve [Simon] and Tommy [Haas], who’ve I known so well for a long time. It was just like playing in my backyard. For me to come out here and have all the crowd support — family, friends — it was easy. I had a few opportunities to win and was able to capitalize.
Q: There were a lot of great moments here, I know, but are there one or two that stick out for you?
MC: I had a lot of tough matches here — some matches that I won, some that I lost. All the finals I played here were three-out-of-five sets back then, so they were tough physically. Beating Andre here one year [in the 1996 quarterfinals] was huge. I remember beating Stefan [Edberg] here in ‘89. I didn’t win the tournament, but that gave me a ton of confidence going into play the final at the French Open, because that was the first time that I beat him. That was huge for me. A lot of great memories. Even at the older site, the setting was super intimate. Now they’ve expanded and made this tournament incredible.
Q: How different is Indian Wells now versus the mid-‘90s?
MC: Back then, it was just a men’s tournament. Then they slowly started to add the women in. Then they recognized that their venue wasn’t big enough. So they built this facility and have done a tremendous job, and continue to make it better and better every year — as much as that is even possible. They found a way to do it. There’s a reason why it’s voted one of the favorite tournaments by the players.
Q: It feels like a Slam.
MC: It does. But it’s funny — it feels like a Slam without the busy, hectic chaos, which is nice.
Q: It must be surreal for you, having first played in the desert as a teenager, and now coming back with your family as a coach for Kei Nishikori. It’s come full circle.
MC: It’s exciting. I feel like I have this great opportunity now to make an impact upon a young Asian player. There haven’t been a whole lot of Asian men who have done well on the tour, so I felt like this was a really unique opportunity. I want to see Kei do well, to reach his goals. It’s been fun to see him improve. He’s an unbelievable talent. I’m excited for his future.
Q: When was the last time you were in the same room as your old Fab Four foes Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier?
MC: All four of us? It’s been a while. Three of us, not that long ago, because I still play on Jim’s tour [Power Shares Series]. So I do see them.
Q: Is the rivalry still there?
MC: No, everyone’s mellowed out.
Q: It took this many years for that to happen?
MC: It was always there when we were playing. But at the Power Shares Series tour we have good tennis, but it’s not so cutthroat. But when it gets down to push and shove, 5-all in the set, you want to win.
Q: The top American guys today are much more collegial than in your heyday — they eat together, hang out together. You guys didn’t always get along.
MC: We started out that way when we were very young. We always got along, but when we were all competing for tournament titles, it was different. We were a lot more focused. We didn’t socialize as much. Then at the end of our careers, when we saw there was a new generation coming in, we kind of came back together.