Here comes the new Mary !
By Matt Cronin
Friday, June 3, 2005
When she was just a girl, Mary Pierce was sent from American to Roland Garros to train. She didn't speak a lick of French and often cried herself to sleep.Now Roland Garros has become the Frenchwoman's sanctuary, the place where she trains prays and has had her most success. On Saturday, she will play her third final here against 2003 champion Justine Henin-Hardenne.
Eleven years ago as a spry 21-year-old, Pierce shocked Steffi Graf in the semis before being run out of the building by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the final. But she kept churning and in 2000, put on her most rousing Slam performance ever, beating down Monica Seles in the quarterfinals, No. 1 Martina Hingis in the semifinals and Conchita Martinez in the final for the title.
But just after that, she suffered a series of devastating injuries and lost her elite form. That she's even made it back to the final at age in 30 in or world of fleet hard hitters in amazing. Thinking about a third Slam title had the tall blonde smiling ear to ear.
"That would be unbelievable. I'd probably just sit here and not know what to say," she said. "I believe in myself, and the few people that believe in me that I have in my life have really helped me a lot to get where I am. That's why I'm here today, is because I had something inside of me when I had my injuries that was telling me, 'You're not done.' There's still something for you to do in tennis."
It's been Pierce's decision to return to Paris to train that arguably has keyed her run here. A few years back, she rejoined the French Fed Cup team and grew much closer with other French players, as well as the then captain, Yannick Noah. She said that being part of a team rejuvenated her personally, as it took away the sting from the years of lonely travel that she had to endure.
It was during her time on the Fed Cup team where she met her current trainer, Xavier Moreau, who has helped sculpt her body back into shape and has aided her with her footwork. She's also now working occasionally with current Fed Cup captain Georges Goven.
"I think she's in great shape right now," Henin-Hardenne said. "And mentally she's very strong because she loves to play here at the French Open. She won it a few years ago, so she has a great motivation to go to the final and then try to win this tournament. So it's going to be a tough mission."
During the month before the tournament, Pierce spent all of her time at Roland Garros when she wasn't off playing events. Before the tournament began, the heavily religious Pierce asked officials to reserve a special room for her in the locker room, where she could have some peaceful time and maybe to pray with her coach, and brother, David.
"It's easy to be her coach, we're brother and sister and we get along," David told ********************. "I'm here for her only. I think she became tired of just travelling with a stranger. And she knows I'm not interested in getting paid. It's good to know the person that is with you is there for pure love."
Pierce has come along way since she first started on tour, when she a super shy and confused girl who was under the dominating thumb of her abusive father and coach, Jim, who was once banned from the tour. She eventually broke away from him and took control of her life, involving herself in a long engagement with baseball player Roberto Alomar, that ended in a trying break-up. Before moving back to Paris (she also spends a fair amount of time at her home in Brandeton, Florida), she also spent a lonely year living at a hotel in Amsterdam.
She and her brother have made up with their father and when they are in Florida, Mary will let him watch her practice and has lunch at his house almost every day.
"He's changed drastically," David said. "He's repentant. He's a kinder, gentler person, and he's in his twilight years."
Mary has been avoiding the twilight of her career all tournament long.
She scored solid wins over a talented group that includes Vera Zvonareva, Patty Schnyder, top seed Lindsay Davenport and Elena Likhovtseva.
"Five years ago, you could say, [I was] at the top of my game," Pierce said. "Physically, at 25, you're not too young where you don't have any experience and you're not too old where physically you recover pretty well. "[In] My first final, [I was] so nervous. [I] couldn't sleep the night before. I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh, my French isn't that great and I have to do a speech in French. What am I going to say?' I was just kind of out there and just going for every ball. "[Today], I'm just like everybody else. I just play tennis. I work hard and I do the best that I can every day on the court and also off the court. I have a lot of experience behind me on the court and off the court as well."
Pierce will need all the experience she can get in the final, as she's 0-3 against Henin-Hardenne, who's on a 23-match winning streak on clay. Pierce can't afford to get in a lot of long rallies with the quick and lethal Belgian, but if she serves well and can cut losses on her returns, she has a decent shot at winning.
"Nobody is unbeatable. Nothing is impossible," Pierce said.
With all she's been through, it's incredible that Pierce has returned to the center stage of the tournament where she broke through in 1994. But she's kept her chin up and is sure to play the final with a tremendous amount of spirit.
"It's been difficult, but we're never really faced with things we can't handle," she said. "We're not going to be handed more than we can handle. I feel like I've been stretched to my limits, but that's where you have the greatest growth."