KEY BISCAYNE – I never hit with Michael Chang, but I did squeegee with him.
And, really, on a day like Thursday, with intermittent rain spitting often enough to delay play at the Sony Ericsson Open until 3:30 p.m., what better bonding experience could there be than rolling water off a practice court with one of the icons of the game?
Let me amend the name slightly. That's "coach" Michael Chang, who was out at Key Colony, about a mile up the road from the tournament, trying to get an hour in with the first charge of his new career, the promising young Chinese player Peng Shuai (pronounced "pung shway").
Michael was never an entourage player. He traveled with his coach/brother Carl and sometimes with his parents. No stringer. No public relations flack. No one to tie his shoes so he wouldn't have to bend over.
And so it wasn't surprising to see him grabbing a roller after the latest rain subsided at about 1:30 and start the drying process. That's always been the thing about Chang. He inspires others to work hard, which is why I unhooked another roller from the fence and got busy.
As fate would have it, as soon as we had pushed the water into the drainage ditch, the rain was back, and this time Chang and Peng, who is No. 40 on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, weren't going to wait it out. We're out of there.
There's a lot of interest in Peng, whose career was stalled a bit in 2006 by injury, but who in 2005 defeated Anastasia Myskina, Nadia Petrova, Tatiana Golovin, Elena Dementieva and Kim Clijsters.
There's even more interest in Chang, who at 35 and after 3– years away from the pro tour, is happily back at tournaments where he achieved some of his most important wins. He is a three-time winner at Indian Wells, where he began with Peng on March 7, and a one-time winner at Key Biscayne.
No doubt the nostalgia surrounding him will continue through the clay court season, right through the French Open and then Wimbledon and the hardcourt season -- if they last in this coaching arrangement. Chang has a lot of knowledge to impart, but this is tennis. Coaches are hired to be fired, and they all know it. A player loses three in a row and it's the coach's fault, not the player's.
When we got back to the tournament site, talking just outside the women's locker room where Peng was changing, it was as if 90 percent of the tournament had discovered an old friend.
A stream of "Michael!" or "Hey, Michael!" was called out at him as his former colleagues wandered up and down the hallway inside the stadium.
What's he doing coaching? "I've been blessed in so many ways," he began. "And now I have an opportunity to give back and, especially with the Olympic Games coming in 2008, I'd love for China to be successful." He's 100 percent American, but he's never forgotten his Chinese roots. You also don't have to remind him that great players don't always make great coaches.
"The important thing is to recognize that people are gifted in different ways," he said. "I would never try to make a player play the way I played."
Yet knowledge is only part of the coaching equation. He's going to have to know when to push hard, when to back off, when to criticize and how to criticize. With a cultural connection to Peng, he has an advantage there.
This is going to be different for Michael. There are no trophies for coaches and the paychecks aren't that big. But Chang, who made $19 million in tennis and never lived ostentatiously, probably isn't concerned about the financial end of this second career.
This is about staying in tennis without appearing to be hanging on. This is about taking the knowledge accumulated over a 15-year career and passing it on to another player. Peng has talent but not a lot of experience. She's going to have to be developed, and it will be interesting to see if Chang can do the developing.
She's off to a fine start here, having beating Russia's Elena Vesnina (No. 58) in the first round 6-0, 6-0, and now draws the high-profile No. 7 seed Jelena Jankovic.
There will be a lot of eyes on her here, and a lot more on her coach.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
Re: Chang answers calling as coach of Chinese star: Shuai Peng
I don't know what kind of coach Michael is on the professional level, but he is a humble guy and soft spoken, and has excellent knowledge of tennis. Since his retirement he has conducted many tennis clinics for the youth. He's a competitor and gives it all on the court when he played.