40 LOVE Icons: Mary Pierce
Published August 09, 2013 12:02
PARIS, France - There's no doubt about it, the biggest change in tennis over the last decade or two has been power - big serves, even bigger groundstrokes, swing volleys - many would credit a group of players in the late '80s and early '90s for pioneering this style in the women's game, and among that group of pioneers is one of the purest strikers ever to step foot on a tennis court: Mary Pierce.
After showing a lot of promise in the juniors, Pierce played her first WTA tournaments in 1989, and while it took some time to adjust to the pros, her baseline power game soon found its niche.
"I remember coming on tour feeling completely intimidated because I was the youngest player there, facing players like Kohde-Kilsch, Novotna, Mandlikova, Navratilova, Sabatini - all these women that were far more experienced, taller and stronger," Pierce said. "A lot of them would serve and volley and chip and charge, which was a completely different style to me - but I loved that. I loved playing against players who came to the net. It suited me. They were all so mature, but I did pretty well."
Over the next few years Pierce worked her way into the Top 20 and won her first few WTA titles - her very first coming in 1991 at the still-running clay court stop in Palermo. But it was at the French Open in 1994 that the world would see what kind of major damage Pierce could inflict - she stormed into the final losing just 10 games in six matches, a run that included a 62 62 semifinal demolition of World No.1 Steffi Graf. She finished runner-up to Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, but a message was sent.
"The 1994 French Open semifinal was probably the best match I've ever played in my career. Playing Steffi Graf, No.1 in the world, French Open semifinals, and I had lost a ridiculous amount of games that tournament - I just wasn't missing that whole tournament - until I got to the finals, of course.
"I was too nervous. I had beaten Arantxa a few months before in Hilton Head, and she wasn't as big a threat to me as Steffi was, but it was my first Grand Slam final and I was just too nervous. On top of all, I knew I would have to give a speech in French, win or lose, and I didn't speak it very well at the time!"
It didn't take long for Pierce to have another chance at a Grand Slam final, and this time she converted - seven months later she won her first Grand Slam title at the 1995 Australian Open, not dropping a set in seven matches, including a win over none other than Sánchez-Vicario in the final.
Most of the next five years Pierce was a fixture in the Top 10, Top 5 even - she made another Grand Slam final at the 1997 Australian Open, won another slew of WTA titles, and made a dream come true.
"Winning your first Grand Slam title is so special, so obviously winning the Australian Open was one of my biggest career highlights, but winning the French Open in 2000 was my dream come true in tennis. Winning that one takes it all. To win that title was just a complete miracle for me."
And that miracle had been building - for a while Pierce was starting to look so calm, so composed on the court, and coupled with her obvious talents, it was a matter of time before she struck gold again.
She gives credit to her encounter with Jesus, her Saviour, for making the French Open miracle of 2000 happen."
"I wasn't always so calm on the court - but in 2000 after I met Jesus Christ and I became a born again Christian, that's when I started to change, and on the court everything became different. It was so evident.
"The new relationship I had with Jesus, and which I still have today, was what made the difference."
Pierce was thrown a few curveballs between 2001 and 2004. Injuries started creeping in, and while she did manage to squeak out a few big results, she would finish outside the Top 20 all of those years.
"I had a back injury in 2001 that took me out for seven months, and there was a lot happening in my life. I was completely out of shape. I lost my ranking - I went down to almost 300. I didn't really know what to do. I had already accomplished my dream and had a great career, so should I keep trying?
"But I felt I wasn't done yet. In my heart I knew that was the truth, and I held onto that, and it motivated me. I just kept working hard, trying to get back in shape, trying to get results again - I worked with a coach from Holland, then one from the US, and finally my brother ended up coming back to help me - I had my best year with him in 2000, so we started training together again. And I started working with a new Physical Fitness Coach, he did an amazing job! We worked very hard for 12 months. The results didn't come right away, but we kept going. We believed eventually it would happen.
"If I didn't have my faith and the support of the people around me I wouldn't have achieved any of what I was about to achieve."
Déjà vu, maybe? It all clicked again at the French Open in 2005, as Pierce's game came very alive. Between May and the end of the season she would win 29 of 33 matches, winning San Diego and Moscow, reaching finals at the French Open, US Open and WTA Championships, and finishing the year at No.5.
"Those two weeks in Paris were unbelievable - the crowd, the fans, the connection with them - it was just amazing. And from the French Open on I only lost four matches the rest of the season. It was unbelievable to do what I did at 30 years old. I'm sure lots of people thought I was done, that Mary was over, but in my heart I knew I wasn't done. I had worked so hard. And I was the fittest I had been in my career."
Injury woes fell on Pierce again in 2006 though, including one that would sideline her indefinitely, a left knee injury in Linz that was so extremely painful she says she can't even remember it. There were complications after surgery and she went around the world for a solution, seeing the very best people.
"There was one day where I was on the physio table and I wasn't sure if I would ever walk normally again," Pierce recalled.
"I did my best. I had an amazing career - I never thought my career would end that way, but things could have been a lot worse. I'm grateful to the Lord for the career I had. I have a lot of wonderful memories!
"Today I can walk. I have a great life. Sometimes I wonder what I'd do if my knee ever healed - gosh, what would it take to come back? A lot of hard work, sacrifice and a complete dedication! I do not know if I would be ready for that today. And with the life I am living today, I am fulfilled and satisfied with all of my other activities."
It didn't take too long for Pierce's wealth of knowledge of the sport to be tapped into.
"I've been coaching two kids of a very good and dear friend of mine. I moved to Mauritius in 2008 and in 2010 these kids were playing at a little academy in Mauritius, and since I was there, I thought I would just help them until they find a permanent solution. Well it's been four years now that I've been coaching them! It's a 14-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl. They play junior tournaments. The girl has started playing ITFs. I went to my first tournament with them in the north of France and people were looking at me, like, 'Mary Pierce at a 12 and under event?' It was a bit weird! But it's nice. You talk with people and see old tennis friends, some former players who are coaches now too."
Whether or not Pierce makes it back, she's a true WTA legend - not just for her accomplishments, but for being one of the group that brought today's most prominent game style to the forefront.
"To be mentioned as a part of history of the game is a great honor, but I think Monica Seles played a huge, huge role, coming out with so much power, hitting aggressively and relentlessly from the baseline, introducing swinging volleys - I kind of brought those in after she did. It's interesting to see how it has now evolved into more of a baseline game - I would love to see a little more play at net, mixing it up and hitting some volleys or swinging volleys. Coming to the net wasn't something I did early on, but throughout my career I learned to do it more, practiced it, and it added another dimension to my game. I wouldn't have been as successful if I didn't do that. It helps so much."
And on the 40th anniversary of the WTA? "The WTA has so much to be proud of. Billie Jean King and all of those women who had the courage back then to help start the tour and make it what it is today - I'm very grateful to them. It's wonderful and amazing now - the stars that are created, the role models for kids - it's the top women's sport in the world and it's only going to continue to get better.
"I'm still a fan of tennis. I love watching tennis. I love watching big personalities, players just going out there and living their matches. I enjoy watching Li Na, Vika, Maria - I love watching Serena, because she's just amazing. When Schiavone was doing really well I loved watching her too. There's nothing like seeing players going out and living their matches and sharing it with the fans.
"I had so much fun playing. It brought so many things to my life, tennis.
"This is really a game that I love."