A satisfied champion

CHAMP IN TOWN: Mary Pierce says Serena Williams is one of fiercest competitors she has ever seen. DH PHOTO/ SK DINESH

There is no doubt that Mary Pierce was a player with substantial talent. Her expertise on clay drew lot of accolades in her 17-year-long career. Despite the longevity, the Frenchwoman has just two singles Grand Slam titles to her credit. This shows the times in which she played. It was the golden era. The likes of Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Monica Seles and Jenifer Capriati produced high-class stuff that shaped women’s tennis.

The Australian Open triumph, in 1995, was her first major. After overhauling Spaniard Vicario, it took five years for Pierce to realise her biggest dream. In 2000, she became the champion at her favourite event, the French Open. Pierce’s overhauling of Conchita Martinez was a milestone. She became the first French female player since 1967 to triumph at Roland Garros.

The first phase of her career was also marred by the tumultuous relationship with her father and first coach Jim Pierce. If her professional title at the age of 16 was a sign of her calibre, her shocking victory over Graff in the 1994 French Open semifinal increased expectations. But brutal competition and inconsistency stopped her from adding more major titles. A knee injury after the French Open victory was a big blow.

She scripted a small yet brilliant revival in 2005, reaching the finals of French Open and the season-ending WTA championship, but a big trophy eluded her. Pierce, a two-time Fed Cup winner and six-time Grand Slam finalist, is a coach in Mauritius now.

12 years post her retirement, Pierce has no regrets about her career. In a free-wheeling chat, the 43-year-old, who is here as the Brand Ambassador of the TCS 10K Bengaluru, spoke on the changes in women’s tennis, on Serena Williams and Roger Federer, on the challenges she faced during her career and more.

Excerpts:

What was it like to play in the golden era of women’s tennis?

The competition was just so tough. When I was playing, my highest ranking was number 3. The ones before me were Graf and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and I had beaten both of them. But I just wasn’t consistent enough the whole year to finish No 1. Still, when I look back, I think it’s amazing what I was able to achieve when there were so many great players playing at the same time. My dream was always to win the French Open. I feel I did far better than I ever thought. Of course, you can always win more but I am happy with what I have done.

Do you think, currently, the women’s tennis is more competitive than it has been for some time?

It is different. When you look back....I started my first amateur in 1989 and you look at the 90s, and then 2000, you had a lot of depth. The top ten list in the 90s looked like each player could have been a number one player. Today, obviously, the game has evolved and the racket technology has developed. The girls are hitting the ball harder. They are more athletic and fitter. It is becoming better and better, stronger and stronger.

Despite new talents cropping up, the women’s tennis feels one dimensional.

True. Back then we had pure serve and volley players and baseliners and all-court players. Today it’s mostly baseliners and they’ve got good serves and hit the ball from the baseline. So for me, whenever I speak of women’s tennis now, I hope to see women coming to the net more. You don’t have to be just a serve and volley player but just to do it once in a while, trying and coming to the net more will be good. I think that’s the way forward.

You turned professional at the age of 14. How difficult was it to handle the attention and focus on the game?

It was very difficult. I am fortunate I travelled with my family till I was 18. My dad was my coach, my mom didn’t work and my brother was taken out of school and he was doing home-schooling. So it wasn’t too bad. But it is hard to be in an adult world at such a young age. You are expected to act and speak like adults, and expected to handle adult situations when you are not equipped yet. That’s tough for a young girl. But then from 18, is when my parents divorced, I left my family, I got a new coach and I was kind of alone after that. Yes it’s hard. Because you are not at home as you are travelling all the time. But I was fortunate to have my brother around with me during two years of my career. And those two years -- 2000 and 2005-- were my best years. You can see how that can make a difference. When you have people supporting, you don’t feel so lonely.

You are someone who has had a see-saw career. How according to you does a tennis player manage a tough phase?

I remember when I injured my back just before going to defend my title in French Open in 2001, I had to retire from a previous tournament. I had to take seven months off. My ranking was close to 300. A couple of years I wasn’t doing great. But the most important thing is self-belief. I knew that my time wasn’t over and I was still capable of doing great things. You just need to have a good team around you.

To be a home hope and win both the singles and doubles titles at Roland Garros in the same year is a special achievement.

Yes. The pressure is really hard. Playing in France as a French player, I mean you have got everybody watching you and on top of it your family and friends come and watch you play. Lot more people around, the noise and distractions, a lot more media attention for interviews and TV shows! It takes a lot more energy out of you. When you win, everybody loves you and when you lose they don’t. So it can be very hard to deal with. It took me quite a while to finally just be free of it and just be able to go out there and play my best, be relaxed and accept all the situations as they are.

Serena Williams and Roger Federer are arguably among the greatest the game has witnessed. Your thoughts.

The big story in women’s tennis is Serena. She is a fierce competitor. She is just so fierce and intense. Every single shot, every point, every game and every set, she just goes all out. I have not seen anyone like her before. Obviously, physically she is at another level, very strong, hits the ball very hard. She does move around the court well. Being in a difficult position in defence, she can hit the ball hard and make a great shot. As far as Roger is concerned, his achievements are because of his passion and love for tennis. The shots that Roger plays cannot be taught. It’s like it’s in his blood and he is born to do that. Once his coach Ivan Ljubicic told me that Roger talks about tennis like no one else does. Before or after the game, Roger’s life revolves around tennis and that’s why he is who he is today.

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A satisfied champion

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