Mary Pierce: Building a life in tennis

Published by Leigh Rogers

Mary Pierce during the opening of Court Simonne Mathieu on day one of the 2019 French Open; Getty Images
Former French and Australian Open champion Mary Pierce tells Australian Tennis Magazine about life beyond her stellar playing career.

“Life is busy,” says Mary Pierce, flashing the radiant smile that made her a fan favourite throughout her stellar career.

“There’s never a dull moment and not a lot of free time.”

The 44-year-old Frenchwoman, who is in the final year of a four-year term on the International Tennis Federation board of directors and a member of International Olympic Committee commissions, is not exaggerating. Between those commitments, she also coaches two players from Mauritius, works as a tennis commentator and is soon set to launch her own foundation.

Yet remaining so actively involved in the sport was not always the plan for the two-time Grand Slam singles champion.

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“I thought at 30 I would retire, get married and have two kids. I thought I’d be a mum and a wife, that was it. That never happened for me, so it’s been quite interesting,” Pierce says.

“But I love what I do and I love that I don’t just do one thing, I do a few different things.

“I never thought I would get into coaching that is for sure, but I actually really love it. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you think it would, but I’m enjoying it very much.”

It is clear Pierce is in a happy space – which was not always the case in her playing days. Along with a tumultuous relationship with her father that affected her early years on tour, there were also many injury struggles for the Canadian-born star.

Pierce, who turned professional at age 14, believes such testing experiences have made her more resilient.

“I think when you go through difficult situations – like you have some injuries or other things happen – it makes you more grateful for what you have,” says the devout Christian.

Pierce is a four-time Grand Slam champion across singles and doubles, a two-time Fed Cup champion and three-time Olympic representative. She lists winning Roland Garros in 2000 as her career highlight, becoming the first French woman to win the singles title since Francoise Durr in 1967.

“Winning the French Open for me was my dream in tennis,” she says.

“You’re playing in front of your home crowd, they’re cheering for you, there’s no better feeling. The French was always the toughest one to compete at, deal with the expectations, the pressure, the stress, the media. I always found it very difficult.

“When I won, 15 years of hard work – the suffering, the sweating, the tears, all the difficult moments – it was all worth it in that one moment when you win championship point and your dream comes true.”

Pierce, who remains the only French women’s singles champion at Roland Garros in the Open era, made her last competitive appearance at Linz in October 2006.

On the verge of a second-round victory over Russian Vera Zvonareva, Pierce tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and was stretchered off court screaming in pain. It was a far from glamourous exit from the game.

“It was a bit of a shocker – I obviously didn’t think my career would end that way with an injury on court,” Pierce recalls.

“I tried to come back but I couldn’t, so I was just like ‘OK, now it’s time for me to do some other things that I didn’t have time for when I was on tour.’”

Adopting a bigger picture mentality helped make that transition smoother for the then 31-year-old Pierce.

“Everything in life happens for a reason,” Pierce says.

“I think as you get older and you have more experience, you realise that tennis is a big part of your life – it is what you do and your goal and your focus – but it is not everything.

“Even though you want to be the best you possibly can, seeing the bigger picture of life also helps to take the pressure off. When you are young, you don’t see life like that. But as you get older and the more you play on the tour, you realise there are other things in life and playing tennis is only going to be a short part of your life.”

Still, the 18-time WTA singles champion admits she found it challenging to plan for life beyond her professional playing career.

“When you’re playing it is so difficult,” Pierce admits.

“You’re always training, competing or travelling – you don’t have a lot of free time.

“While you’re playing you get an opportunity to meet so many people, so it is important to realise that network you can create. It is easier now to connect with different people because of social media, but when I was playing you couldn’t.”

But there is no time for regret in Pierce’s life right now. She is too excited for what her future might hold.

“My foundation is something I will be very involved in and we’ll see what other things might pop up along the way,” she says.

“I think I’ll always have a diverse array of activities. Maybe one day I will have a training centre where I can coach more than two players and have a little team to coach, players that desire to play professional tennis or even professionals that want to win Grand Slams. That’s where I feel I can help.

“I enjoy seeing that everything I have done in my career can actually benefit someone else and their game. Whether it is technically looking at strokes or tactically how to play a match, I feel like there’s a lot I have to give.”

Pierce, who created and ran a series of ITF women’s tournaments in East Africa in 2015–2016, also harbors ambition to run more tournaments in the future.

For now, she is most looking forward to her International Tennis Hall of  Fame induction. Pierce is one of three inductees for 2019, alongside China’s Li Na and Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Although set for official induction in Newport in July, they were recognised at a special ceremony at the Australian Open in January.

Pierce was thrilled to return to the tournament where she made her Grand Slam title breakthrough 24 years earlier. Having her career achievements recognised and applauded by an adoring Rod Laver Arena crowd made it even more special.

“There’s a lot of things I miss about life on tour, but the biggest is being on a centre court with a packed stadium and playing a big match. That’s what I loved the most,” Pierce says.

Reflecting on her fulfilling, yet challenging career evokes many emotions.

“When I look back to my career, see everything I’ve done, where I’ve come from, I’m just amazed,” Pierce says.

“I think from a little girl in Florida, who just went to be with her friend after school and happened to pick up a racquet and hit a few balls, to be where I am today is absolutely incredible and amazing. I’m very, very proud.

“I’m most proud of the fact I never gave up, despite all the adversity, all the difficult moments, the injuries, the comebacks, the ups and downs.

“I continued to persevere, believe in myself and work hard. It’s nice knowing that hard work always pays off in the end.”

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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