Hindustan Times, New Delhi
In her almost two decade-long professional tennis career, Mary Pierce fought several battles, on and off the court. The French two-time Grand Slam winner—she reached six singles finals— had a difficult relationship with father Jim but rose to become one of the first power-hitters in women’s tennis. There was a lull after her 2000 French Open victory as she dropped out of the top 250, but her grit showed in her resurgence which saw her reach the French Open and US Open finals in 2005.
On a trip to India for the Roland Garros Junior Wild Card series that ended here on Wednesday, Pierce was at the Hindustan Times office for an interaction with the sports team, on her career, the current generation of players and the domination of the Big Three in men’s tennis.
Can you talk about young talent in women’s tennis—Sofia Kenin was a new winner at Australian Open and we also have youngsters like Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka.
It’s very exciting to see what Coco Gauff is doing at such a young age. She really impresses me with how mentally she is handling the big stage so well. Sofia Kenin won the first Grand Slam of the year. I am very happy for her. For her dad, her coach it’s very great. Let’s see how she handles the spotlight right now, because once you win a Slam, your whole life changes and it’s not easy to deal with all the attention. There’s a lot of adaptation needed. Naomi Osaka hasn’t done it well since becoming No. 1 and winning Grand Slams. These things are difficult. The top players who are so young, they need to be consistent. What Serena Williams is doing is incredible at her age. If she is able to fully get back the fitness she had before, she will be unbeatable.
Serena and Sania Mirza have come back after motherhood.
It’s tough for any woman to comeback after pregnancy in a high-level sport. It’s difficult physically as well as emotionally. You need to take care of the child and also train, which demands a lot of time. Balancing those things and trying to be at the top is not easy. I wish best of luck.
Can it get lonely at times for professional players, become stressful?
Being on the tour is hard because it’s a very long season. We have a break for a really short time. The season should be shorter. It’s a lonely life, you are away from your home, family, friends. So, it’s really difficult. The WTA has a great medical department and staff. Players know that if they need any help, or need to talk to somebody, there’s a hotline where they can get help.
We now have in women’s tennis players disappearing after winning a Grand Slam. Is it down to the quality or are the players not that strong mentally?
When you win a Grand Slam, your life completely changes. It takes time to adapt with all the focus on you. You have a lot less free time because you have a TV show to do or a photo shoot or a special appearance somewhere. It takes your time, energy. One should learn when to say no. It’s important to have a good team around to guide and help. The girls are young and taking their time to adapt to their new status. There has not been one who has been consistent after being dominant. But I think they have the potential.
Do you think the pressure of being in spotlight is more now?
There definitely was pressure earlier. But now with the social media and other stuff everything gets amplified a whole lot more.
How did you handle fame after your 1995 Australian Open win?
It was tough. Everyone is watching you, expecting you to win. I know we are all human and you can’t win. But then there is a hell of a lot of extra pressure. The players look at you and they want to beat you. Everyone plays the match of their lives against you. They play as if they have nothing to lose and it makes it even harder. It’s just the experience of going through it that helps you learn to deal with it really. End of the day, I decided I have to live my life the way I wanted and not worry that people are watching me.
What was your stress buster?
There are different things, maybe listen to music or take a bubble bath with candles or sometimes just do a hobby like painting or going for walk in the forests.
Religion played a big role for you as well.
Yes. I was born again Christian in the March of 2000. That changed me entirely as a person. That changed my life and how I was living it, what my purpose was, how I related to people— the fans, media, how I played tennis, everything changed completely for me.
You live in Mauritius now?
I went to Mauritius in 2005 for a holiday at the end of the year. I loved it. I felt like my heart was at home. I moved there in 2008. In 2009-10 I started coaching some young Mauritian players and then I took them to Florida. I realised they were the best in Mauritius and could not stay there if were to be evolving in their tennis. Until the end of 2014-15, I stayed with them in Florida. And then always going back and forth to Mauritius; it’s a beautiful island. I love it there.
What advice would you give young players on handling pressure?
If you feel like you are struggling with something, it could be depression, anger, fear, anxiety, something that’s happened in your life in the past, you should speak to somebody whom you can trust. One should seek help and not be silent about it and do nothing about it. There is nothing to be ashamed of. That’s the thing which needs to be lifted off. As a human being we have a heart, a mind, a body. All those things need to be healthy. When we have a cough or sore throat we go to the doctor. Similarly, if something happens emotionally, it’s part of your duty to take care of that. No one’s perfect.
Your experience playing with kids here.
I really enjoyed playing on the clay court with the Roland Garros signage around. I did see a few players that caught my eye. There was one girl who kind of stood out and there was one boy that stood out as well. They ended up winning the final of the Roland Garros junior wild card series. It would be good for them if the tennis association tries and sees how they can help the kids.
Younger men’s players are still unable to challenge the Big 3?
Science and technology has improved. Recovery is such a big thing now. When I was playing an ice-bath was like filling the bath tub with cold water, putting in ice and trying to make it as bearable as possible. Now it’s like you know what the temperatures should be, how long you should stay in there, how often you should do it. Recovery, nutrition supplements just help the athlete to recover quicker, and last longer. There are so many techniques for recovery. The next generation of players are coming up, but Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are just amazing.
McEnroe was known for his tantrums and it is Kyrgios now?
When John McEnroe and Nick Kyrgios play, the stands are full. People are obviously enjoying watching them. I don’t advocate their behaviour on the court, but there is no doubt they are very entertaining. I used to watch McEnroe, just wait for him to get mad. I knew just one point and he will get mad. What’s he going to do next, you don’t know. The same is with Kyrgios. But purely speaking tennis-wise Kyrgios is very gifted, incredible, and I love to watch him.
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena have set the bar really high. Who among the younger generation can at least rise to that level?
It is difficult to compare generations. If you look the era before, you had Chris Evert, Martina, then Margaret Court, all amazing players. Every generation has these rivalries. Women’s tennis right now is in a transition phase. Bianca Andreescu (2019 US Open champion) impressed me, playing her first Grand Slam final and wining it against Serena at the US Open just like that. Coco impresses me. Amanda Anisimova impresses me. Unfortunately, she lost her father just before US Open; she will take some time to come back. She is the player to watch. We have to see with time the way these girls handle the pressure.
You were one of the original big-hitters in women’s tennis. How has fitness, nutrition and athleticism changed tennis?
It has changed tennis a lot. Players have become better athletes since Martina Navratilova started training physically. She really changed women athletes, Now players are more athletic, stronger and faster, playing longer, Nutrition, technology, research, science all have played a role.
Is there any merit in the skill vs power debate?
Having power is skill as well. You need to be strong, get the right timing, momentum. It’s about different styles.
Your memories of the French Open, where you reached two finals, winning once.
I have so many. Making the final as a 19-year-old was incredible (lost to Arantxa Sanchez). My semi-finals against Steffi Graf was one of my best matches. Winning in 2000 was dream come true. Next day winning doubles with Hingis was cherry on the cake. It’s been 20 years now, can’t believe. Reaching the 2005 French Open final was very special. People were thinking I was done, and tired already, but I continued to hang on and that run to the final was very special for me. Every match was as if I was winning the tournament, it was that important. I knew in my heart I wasn’t finished. Comments are okay, everyone is free to have their opinion. But I believed in myself and I was working hard. Eventually it paid off.
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