Mary Pierce, Roland Garros 2000

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.”

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Lleyton Hewitt, 1998

Vince Spadea on Lleyton Hewitt’s first ATP title, extract from Facing Hewitt by Scoop Malinowski:

I expected to steamroll the kid

I played against Hewitt in the 1998 quarters at Adelaide, his hometown in the south of Australia, when he was a sixteen year old wildcard. Everyone was wondering how he got a wildcard in the first place, because he was like No.500 in the world at the time and nobody had ever heard of him. Some of the other Australian players were mystified. He had just played a Satellite, which is an even lower pro tournament than a Challenger, that has since been mostly phased out in favor of Futures, the week before Adelaide, and he had lost to a nobody. Our match was a night match, center court. I see this little guy with long blond hair who looks like a surfer, walk out on the court. I figure: “I’m in the semis. This kid is sixteen and he looked weak, inexperienced, unrehearsed, and unpolished.”

The match begins and he’s holding his own. He keeps on hitting balls in the court. I wasn’t playing strongly enough or consistently enough to overpower him even though I’ve got him outweighed by about forty pounds. I end up losing the first set 7-5. Now I’m thinking: “What does this kid think he’s doing?” He didn’t miss one shot long the entire set. My dad, who was coaching me, said after the match “He missed into the net and he missed wide but he never missed past the baseline.” Whenever Hewitt won a big point he screeched out, ‘COME ON’ and punched the air with his fist. I thought that was a little annoying and cocky of him but I didn’t let it bother or initimidate me. I won the second set 6-3. I had been working with Jim Pierce (coach and father of Mary Pierce), so I was in great shape. I had been killing myself in training. I expected to steamroll the kid in the third set. But instead, he put his game into another gear and beat me soundly 6-1 to win the match.

The next day I was eating breakfast with my dad in the players’ cafeteria and Brad Gilbert, coach of Andre Agassi, walked up to us and completely ignored me. He approached my dad and said “Your son had Hewitt last night but he choked. Andre will show you how to handle the kid tonight.”

Of course, Hewitt straight-setted Agassi 7-6 7-6 and then went on to win the tournament. Hewitt has gone on to win almost twenty million dollars in his career, along with a Wimbledon and US Open title. He’s a true warrior on the court. He doesn’t get fazed by disappointment o failure? He doesn’t worry about if he’s hitting the ball great or if he’s winning or losing, he just enjoys the battle. The only other player who battled as successfully as Hewitt was Jimmy Connors. Hewitt will never give up and he doesn’t mind if he has to win hard or easy. He’s one of the greatest competitors in tennis.

Photo credit: Al Bello/Allsport – Lleyton Hewitt in 1998

Mary Pierce and Nick Bollettieri

From Nick Bollettieri‘s book, Changing the game:

When Mary Pierce first came to the academy in 1988, she was 13 years old and already had a blistering forehand. Her father, Jim Pierce, a belligerent man obsessed with getting his daughter to succeed, felt that the competitive envionment would help her improve more quickly. Although Mary lived in the dorms for some time, Jim continued as her coach.

Determined to maintain his control over Mary and her career, he soon pulled her out of the academy. Mary turned pro two months after her 14th birthday and started to play on the women’s tour. Meanwhile, her father was often abusive, unable to control his temper. He cursed at other players and their parents, and verbally terrorized Mary and her mother, Yannick. It got so bad that he was officially banned from tournaments. In the summer of 1993, Mary finally succeeded in getting a restraining order against her father, but she and her mother traveled with bodyguards for a while.

I know those were traumatic times for Mary, although personally, I have never had difficulties with Jim Pierce. We have always been able to talk to each other, and I credit him with the work ethic he instilled in Mary and for helping her develop the smashing “Bollettieri forehand”. I see him now occasionally, and he has become a gentler man, no longer afflicted by demons.
At the time, however, those demons plagued him and he often acted out in hurtful and damaging ways. With such a difficult background, it is no wonder that Mary was both a fierce competitor and a bundle of terrible insecurity about who she was and what she was capable of. During matches, when things didn’t go well, she often looked to her coaches for help, even though it was against the rules for them to advice to their players. She would also get down on herself, become irritated and tank matches when she an into difficulties with her opponents.

I followed her career from a distance. By the time she was 17, Mary was ranked among the top 15 women players in the world, and I saw that she had great potential to do better. At some point when we ran into each other at a tournament, I mentioned to her that she was always welcome at the Academy to train and feel safe.
Soon after, I received a phone call from her. She asked me to be her coach, and I agreed but I had conditions. I wrote her a note, “Mary, if I am to be your coach, there are two conditions that you must agree to: First, you are out of shape, in fact you are fat! You have to commit to a physical conditioning program that will get you into you top level of fitness. And second, I will stay with you until you not only believe in yourself, but also never need to look over to your support team, raising your hands in frustration and acting like a baby.”
I was deliberately blunt to put her on notice that our work together would not be a walk in the park. After reading the note Mary came to me with tears in her eyes asking why I wrote such hurtful things about her. My answer was very simple “It’s the truth and it’s my way or the highway.”
She agreed!

In 1994, our first full year together, Mary improved her ranking from No.12 to No.5 in the world. During the French Open, her road to the finals included beating defending champion Steffi Graf in two sets 6-2 6-2. Unfortunately she ran out of steam against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. That finish set the pattern for the rest of the year; she reached the finals of five tournaments, but won none.[…]

Mary arrived in early December to get ready for the 1995 Australian Open – it would be my first time here, coaching her and Boris Becker.
For the next few weeks Mary trained as if she were preparing for a Navy Seal mission. In addition to her two on-court workouts each day, she also spent two hours in our weight room. Mary continued to work hard over the holidays and her full-time coach Sven Groeneveld and her conditioning coach, José Rincon. But after I returned from a week of skiing in Aspen and met her in Australia for the warm-up tournament, she still hadn’t shed all of her extra body weight.

I confronted her about it and finally got through to her. That night, with a bit of help from Sven and José, Mary located all the junk food she had hidden in her appartment – her favorite indulgence was tiramisu – and threw it out. The next day she arrived for practice with a new attitude, all business and commitment.

Boris lost in the first round and generously told me to stay and take Mary to the championship. She breezed through the first three rounds in straight sets and dispatched Anke Huber, a German player who had given her problems in the past. In the quarterfinals, she faced Natasha Zvereva, a tough player from Belarus. I knew Mary could win, but I had a different problem. I had commited to hosting a Super Bowl tennis clinic in Florida and would miss the semis and finals.
Mary won against Zvereva as expected, and after the match I reminded her that I had to leave for the United States. I knew it would be difficult for both of us. I told her that she was ready – her game was technically close to perfect. The only thing she needed was confidence in herself to deal with adversity on the court, to look deep inside herself, not hope to find answer in the coaches’ box. She didn’t need me or anyone else to win the tournament. We both had tears in ours eyes as we hugged and parted.

Mary’s opponent in the semifinals was the No.3 player in the world, Conchita Martinez. I called Mary during my stopover in Hawaii and gave her the game plan Sven and I had worked out. I made it to bradenton in time to watch the match on television. I was on pins and needles, but I needn’t have been. Mary ruled the court, whipping Conchita 6-3 6-1. After the final point, when she did look over the coaches’ box, her arms were raised in victory and I knew the change had happened. At that moment, Mary came into her own; she finally accepted that she was a winner! I only wished I could have shared that moment with her by being there.

The finals were almost a foregone conclusion. She dominated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-3 6-2 to win the Australian Open. I was in heaven. When she called me, I was momentarily at a loss for words I was so happy. Then I congratulated her on her victory and told her, “Remember what I put in my note to you? I told you that I’d stay with you until you can stand on your own two feet. Today, you showed not only yourself, but the entire world that Mary Pierce is a winner. You were perfect and now you’re ready to rely on your full-time coach, Sven Groenveld.” Then I added, “Go out, get the biggest tiramisu you can find and eat it all by yourself. You have earned it.”