Roland Garros 2000: Pierce finds peace and glory
By Alan Tengrove, Australian Tennis magazine, July 2000:
A new Mary Pierce, more complete as a person and a tennis player, achieved an “impossible dream” at a dramatic French Open.
There were good reasons for Mary Pierce‘s self-pity. A father she loved, but who mistreated her in his obsession to make her a champion. A nervous temperament that often brought her undone. A part-French background that caused her more anguish than joy because she failed to live up to the expectations of a public thirsting for glory.
All changed at Roland Garros when Pierce, the No. 6 seed, became the first French woman to win he national championship since Françoise Durr in 1967. At last she did justice to her considerable talent. She out-hit three-time champion Monica Seles in a quarter-final, tipped out top seed Martina Hingis in a semi, and out-classed fifth seed Conchita Martinez 6-2 7-5 in the final.
With a partially disabled Lindsay Davenport upset in the first round, and an under-prepared Venus Williams eliminated by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (who later lost to Martinez), there was no doubt Pierce deserved the title. Just as she did the doubles title shared with Hingis. At 25, and in her 11th year as a professional, she played the finest tennis of her career.
It seemed so much more than six years ago that she reached her first French Open final after surprising Steffi Graf. Then, a bundle of nerves, she was no match for Sanchez Vicario.
Seven months later, when she beat Sanchez Vicario in the Australian Open final, anything seemed possible. France hoped she would inherit Graf’s throne, but year after year Pierce was disappointing. For five years she failed to pass the fourth round at Roland Garros. She flopped at other French tournaments.
Her former fans felt let down, were irritated by her mannerisms, and turned against her, teating her with derision. She was overshadowed by younger players, such as Hingis, the Williams sisters and Davenport. And three years ago, disenchanted, she stopped representing her adopted country in the Fed Cup.
To win the French Open was her dream – an impossible dream, it had seemed.
“Everything that’s happened here in the past, everything that I’ve been through, there’s just so many emotions that attach to this tournament,” she said after heer unexpected triumph. “to win is amazing.”
She was 13 when her American father became dissatisfied with the attitude of the USTA and decided to move the family to France, where her mother was born. Pierce hated to leave her school and friends in Florida, but had no choice.
In Paris she was separated from her family and lived in a dormitory at Roland Garros.
“I couldn’t speak French. I didn’t know anybody? I didn’t have any friends and I was by myself,” she recalled. “It was really tough. I probably cried every night, trying to fall asleep. It was tough practicing.”
Her life since then has been well documented: how Jim Pierce was found to have belted her and was banned from tournaments because of his unruly behavior, and now his daughter, despite sporadic success, floundered for long periods on the women’s tour.
This year there were changes. Pierce, for instance, underwent laser surgery on her eyes in February. No longer did she need spectacles or contact lenses. She could see the ball sooner and clearer.
She had become engaged to baseball star Roberto Alomar in 1999, and the relationship made her more emotionally mature, more professional in her tennis. Previously, she’d attempted to overpower opponnents. Now, she was better tactically. At Roland Garros she outshone Seles, Hingis and Martinez in finesse, using sharp angles to take them out of court, playing touch shots, and advancing to the net to volley winners. She could thump the ball harder than ever, but power wasn’t her only weapon.
Most important of all, Pierce had learned to relax. Encouraged by her fiance, she had found new peace in her religious faith.
“I put everything in God’s hands. I just don’t worry. I don’t have any fears,” she said.
She was, mind you, still apprehensive at the reception she’d receive from the fans, concerned that they might again be hurtful if she lost, and sensitive about her difficulties in the French language. But her anxieties vanished as she swept on to victory, determined above all to be herself.
“I am the same as I always will be,” she said. “I’m French and I’m American. I was born in Canada. I love living in America, and I love playing the French Open in front of my French people, who support me.”
I sounded regal, and in view of her new status, why not?