She calls herself ‘Dory’, after the well-meaning but forgetful Blue Tang fish in Disney-Pixar’s ‘Finding Nemo’. Utter the word ‘tweener’, however, and Mary Pierce lights up with nostalgia.
It was during the 2000 Roland Garros quarterfinal against perennial rival Monica Seles that Pierce pulled out a stroke that remains a fixture in most ‘best shots ever’ montages; a running, high-jumping, front-facing, between-the-legs lob.
“That is probably the best shot of my career,” Pierce says when asked if she remembers playing a better one. “You can train for that to an extent. Facing the net, hitting the ball like that, of course not jumping that high… but it was always just a fun thing to do in practice.”
The monumental shot, tennis’ equivalent of a between-the-legs dunk, was a heady mix of athleticism and audaciousness. But the preceding rally too was a class in defensive baseline play and anticipation.
“Monica had me running side to side that point. We had played each other several times, so we knew each other’s games pretty well. I was defending, and knew she would go for the open courtside, and I ran fast. In fact, I ran too fast because the ball was right on top of me,” Pierce says on the sidelines of the Roland-Garros Junior Wild Card Series. “I didn’t know what to do, what to think. It was instinct. All of a sudden the ball is there, and I jump and hit it between my legs. I didn’t know if I was going to hit the ball or miss the ball. If it’ll be in or out.”
Pierce grins recalling her reaction — “I was more amazed than anybody at that moment” — and the ovation from the French crowd. Days later, she sent her home country into further delirium by hoisting the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup. In three months, Pierce completes two decades of that triumph and the lonely feat of being the only Frenchwoman since Francoise Durr in 1967 to win the French Open.
In the capital for the talent hunt tournament which will hand spots in the Roland Garros junior qualifiers in Paris, Pierce knows the importance of starting young.
She first picked up a racquet at an (admittedly) late age of 10, accompanying a friend to a Florida club where coach Kevin Quay spotted her. “How long have you been playing?” an impressed Quay asked. Pierce’s reply: “45 minutes.”
“I don’t know what he saw in me. I actually invited him to my Hall of Fame induction last year. We were having lunch and I asked him, ‘Do you remember that day? You came to me afterward and that changed my life’. And Kevin didn’t remember. I was so surprised and a little bit disappointed,” Pierce laughs.
Born in Montreal, Canada, to an American father and French mother, Pierce moved to France at 13. The transition was rough. For starters, she had to give up on a very specific ambition of becoming a pediatrician.
“I was probably 7 when I decided that. I remember sitting in the waiting room, seeing babies coming in crying, and seeing the same babies leaving not crying. Now, babies can’t tell you what they’re feeling like. A pediatrician has to examine, find it and treat it. I just thought it was amazing.”
Then it was the culture and the language.
“In America, you can say that the motto is ‘hey, you can achieve anything you want to’. France was a bit more… social. The country clubs were filled with friends, family.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t make friends or play with other kids. I wouldn’t know what they were saying. I learnt French in 10 months,” says the 45-year-old, who’s now proficient but admits native speakers can pick up on “the little bit of an accent”.
“Also, I get confused with ‘le’ and ‘la’. In English, you have ‘the’ and ‘it’. Nothing is masculine or feminine. How do I know if the table is masculine? A fork feminine?”
Then there was the pressure. Pierce explains her relationship with France through the three Roland Garros finals. In 1994, a jittery Pierce was outplayed by Arantxa Sanchez. In 2000, she beat Conchita Martinez in the final. And in 2005, after being written off due to long injury layoffs, she suffered a bittersweet defeat to Justine Henin.
“My relationship changed as I evolved as a person. In the beginning, it was very tough because if I won the whole country was happy. If I won, I was the french Mary Pierce. If I lost, I was Franco-American. Initially, it was very emotionally hard because I took it personally. After that, I changed. The crowd was great at me. When I am down, difficult days. that’s when I need you the most.”
Also in 2000, she became a born-again Christian and moved on from an acrimonious relationship with father Jim.
“When you go through adversities, they shape you and inform you as a person. It does great things to your perspective. On the court, I could then realise that if I lose a match, nobody’s gonna shoot me. There are other more serious things in life,” says Pierce. “Through an interview, I also appealed to the crowd. It’s when I’m struggling and I’m down that I truly need your support.”
‘Big Babe Tennis’
She made her ascent in the age of moonballs and drop shots. And in many ways, with her counter-punching physicality and baseline game, the 5’10 Pierce set the template for the Amazonian hard hitters of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“The American commentator Mary Carillo called my style of tennis ‘Big Babe Tennis’,” Pierce brings up the phrase used to describe a brand of tennis where offence was the best defence, and hitting hard could only be countered by hitting harder.
“I guess she said I was one of the first players to have such powerful, hard-hitting game. When you come up with that game, others coming up have to have something as well. From that point forward, a woman had to have the body, the physical abilities and the strokes.”
Fair to assume she’d have run havoc with the modern racquet and strings?
“I’d have hit the ball even harder, that is for sure,” Pierce cackles.
Dev, Vaishnavi advance
Top seed Dev V Javia defeated Nitin Singh 6-2, 6-1 to set up a final showdown with third seed Chirag Duhan, who beat Mohit Bondree 6-1, 6-0. In the Girls’ semifinals, unseeded Vaishnavi Adkar and Sanjana Sirimalla took out the top two seeds Akanksha Nitture and Reshma Maruri.
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