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Hail Mary! Comeback Propels Pierce Past Dokic Into Third Round

Photo By Fred Mullane By Richard Pagliaro

Mary Pierce was embroiled in a blazing baseline with Jelena Dokic today and the effort exuded from the draining duel dripped from her frame. The perspiration from pure perseverance poured from Pierce’s pores, but the scoreboard signaled her hopes of defeating Dokic were drowning down the drain. The 22nd-seeded Dokic held a 5-1 lead and Pierce was points away from a second-round U.S. Open exit.

It was then that the statuesque two-time Slam champion took appropriate action — she took a shower.

Standing in front of her court side seat, she showered her entire body with water from an Evian bottle. Then Pierce poured her heart out on the court, winning 20 of the next 24 points to inspire a dramatic comeback culminating with a thrilling 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-6(5) triumph that propelled Pierce into the third round of the U.S. Open.

Asked if her immediate thoughts included a warm shower when she was down 1-5, Pierce quipped, "cold shower, actually" before adding "I didn't realize it was 5-1. I knew it was 5-2. I just tried to stay calm and just told myself to just fight. Just kept repeating that one word to myself. You never know what can happen in tennis."

It was a remarkable rally from Pierce, who served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, but squandered that chance to close. By the time she bottomed out in the third set, Pierce looked outclassed and out of breath in facing a huge hole at 1-5 to a player who had beaten her in three of their previous four matches. Summoning up the inner strength that made her a two-time Grand Slam champion, but has been so hard to frequently find in recent years, Pierce proceeded to produce some of the finest pressure tennis she’s played in years.

Holding at 15, the 28-year-old Pierce broke back quickly to close to 3-5. Dokic, who rose to a career-high No. 4 in the world last September, relishes the type of pace that emanates from the racquet face of the powerful Pierce. But the former Wimbledon semifinalist was simply overpowered in the ninth game as Pierce slammed successive aces — her 10th and 11th of the match — to reach 40-0. A backhand return from Dokic danced on top of the tap before dropping flatly on her side of the net, like a dancer falling flat after an all-night rave, as Pierce held for 4-5.

For the first time in the set, the 20-year-old Dokic looked tight. Dokic’s fast, flat strokes are extremely effective on fast surfaces but offer little margin for error. Essentially, Dokic is a one-dimensional power player who has little choice other than to keep going for her shots and the result can be streaky tennis that supplies both sensational shots and alarmingly poor patches of play — sometimes in the course of the same game.

The 12th game was a taut drama with the pair playing with the urgency of competitors who knew the match was on the line, but continued to hit out at every opportunity. Netting a low forehand, Dokic faced a 0-30 deficit and was two points from defeat before responding to force deuce. In the schizophrenic serving stretch that followed, Dokic hit her fourth ace to reach game point, followed by her 12th double fault to reach deuce for the third time. Dokic hit her fifth ace for ad, but netted a forehand filled with fatigue to delve to deuce again. Delivering a gutsy second serve ace wide that prompted a smile of respect from Pierce, Dokic reached game point and hit another second serve ace — her seventh of the match — to hold and force the decisive-set tiebreaker.

When Pierce fired a forehand long, Dokic took a 3-1 lead in the tiebreak, but Pierce pounded her 13th ace then evened the score on a Dokic error. Two points later, Pierce hooked a forehand winner crosscourt for a 5-4 lead, but gave it right back when she flailed a forehand wide.
The tiebreak tension mounted with the score even at 5-5. Breathing deeply before the 11th point, Pierce patiently waited for an attackable shot from Dokic. She got it, crouched low to the ground then pounced on a slightly short shot that she measured before blasting a brilliant backhand winner cross court to reach match point at 6-5.

Exhaling in exhilaration, Pierce raised her finger and mouthed the words "one more" before stepping to the service line. Sending a second serve into the box to start the rally, Pierce hit a deep drive and Dokic countered with a forehand well wide of the sideline. When the ball landed, Pierce thrust her arms skyward in triumph.

Motion has always been a key component to Pierce’s peaks and plummets on the tennis court. Remember when her service motion could last almost as long as a Martina Hingis bathroom break? Pierce’s trademark methodical service motion ritual in which she touched her necklace, wiped her eyes, swept her finger across her forehead and straightened her hair beneath her head band, generally resembled a third-base coach flashing signals to a baseball batter while continuously combating a case of poison ivy with an assortment of scratches. Her long blond braid seemed to grow longer with each operatic service performance.

Her extended motion was in full display three years ago when she swept both singles and doubles championships at Roland Garros. But then an assortment of injuries followed, severely restricting Pierce’s schedule and when she finally returned to the tour full time she appeared to be going through the motions during some matches.

"When I won the French Open, I just felt like I was starting to scratch the surface of coming into myself and my potential and being the best I can be," Pierce said. "Since then, I had some injuries, I've been out for a while. So I just feel like I haven't done everything that's in me to accomplish in tennis. What that is, I don't know. But I just feel like I have more in me."

The determination within her helped propel Pierce's comeback today.

Motion was a major question mark in the final set as it appeared Pierce couldn’t move quickly to cover wide shots. In this case, fatigue was a factor that liberated Pierce from third-set pressure.

"My legs kind of weren't there in the third set," Pierce said. "So I just said, 'Just start going for your shots'."

Pierce’s fitness is not nearly close to the level she showed in winning two Grand Slam titles, but she fought back on a deluge of desire today and moved into a third-round meeting with Shinobu Asagoe.

Fourteen years on the WTA Tour have provided Pierce with a sense of perspective and now that she's regained her health she's even more grateful for her position.

"I really appreciate what I do a lot more," Pierce said. "I love it...I don't really think I have a job. It's just something that I do that is just great. I appreciate every day more than I used to."
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