Hindustan Times, New Delhi
It was perhaps the heart of clay that led to her feat on clay. Mary Pierce holds three passports—US and Canada being the others—but she wears the tag of French with pride. Frenchwomen Amelie Mauresmo and Marion Bartoli have followed in the footsteps of the two-time singles Grand Slam champion with Major victories, but Pierce is the last home player to win women’s singles at Roland Garros, in 2000.
Pierce has often spoken of her love for the Parisian clay, though it took her five years to win there, after her 1995 Australian Open success. Pierce, 45, is in Delhi as brand ambassador for the Oppo 2020 Roland Garros Junior Wild Card Series, organised by the French Tennis Federation (FFT). Winners of the boys’ and girls’ competition on clay here this week will qualify for the final round at Roland Garros with the winner entitled to a wild card for the junior slam.
“It’s the 20th anniversary of my Roland Garros win,” Pierce gushed, extolling the virtues of developing a clay court game to the young aspirants. “Firstly, you will get to play on clay, which helps develop the game physically, mentally and tactically.
“It is an opportunity to play at one of the largest tennis tournaments in the world. To be there in those surroundings, watching the pros practice and play, you get to learn a lot, see where you are in your own game.”
Pierce hoped it encouraged more youngsters to take up tennis and India to lay more clay surfaces. Can tennis become more affordable?
“You need courts, racquets, strings, balls, shoes. I was lucky I had a sponsor from 13 to 16, I don’t know how I would have made it without it,” Pierce said. Pierce won her first Slam at 20.
HITTING ON THE WALL
Finances apart, one important first step that players of her era embraced is now being ignored.
“Hitting on the wall, playing (by) yourself, is really important. Even pros used to do that a lot. I used to hit on the wall. That is something kids don’t do as much. That playing by themselves is lost a bit now,” Pierce said.
How about someone who has achieved everything and is still chasing that final high? Pierce is cheering on as Serena Williams, at 38, with players half her age rising to the top, chases that one win to equal Margaret Court’s record 24 Slam titles.
Since her return after childbirth at the 2018 French Open, Serena has reached the finals in four of the eight Slams she has played in.
“What she is doing is amazing. She has achieved everything but is still there only because she wants to break records. She has money, family, everything. It’s only her love for tennis, winning Grand Slams. She wants it so badly (24th Slam win). But will she get it? I really want her to achieve it.”
Kim Clijsters, the four-time Grand Slam champion with a record three as a mom, has made her latest comeback at 36, after a seven-year break. She took her first break from the tour at 23, after marriage. “It’s very courageous. She has had to make sacrifices—husband, three kids, has to manage her family,” Pierce said.
However, Pierce wants young champions in the women’s game to handle adulation better. Naomi Osaka hasn’t shown the form she did to win back-to-back Slams at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open. Canada’s Bianca Andreescu (2019 US Open), Sloane Stephens (2017 US Open), Jelena Ostapenko (2017 French Open) are all one-time winners, with Sofia Kenin (2020 Australian Open) the latest entrant to that club.
“It is the difficulty in handling fame, pressure. The level of attention that comes with it is not easy to deal with.”
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