As the French Open plays itself out in Paris’ summer sunshine, the phrase “last French player to win Roland Garros” will no doubt pop up somewhere — in conversation, TV commentary or across social media. The last French player to win it will allow herself a smile. It was Paris — the city that marks the pinnacle of Mary Pierce’s tumultuous career — that led her to a life as extraordinary as the one that made her famous.
For the past 10 years, Pierce has been part of a Christian church community in a coastal town called Black River in what she says is the “sunniest and most beautiful part” of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. It came from a meeting with a church group from Mauritius during her run to the 2005 Roland Garros final.
Pierce speaks to ESPN on a variety of topics, including Maria Sharapova’s return from a doping ban, partnering up with a 16-year-old Sania Mirza, and the future of women’s tennis.
What was known internationally as a beachside holiday destination, was to become for Pierce, a born-again Christian, a place of spiritual solace. A 10-day holiday after the tournament gave her the chance to spend time at the pastor’s home in the Mauritius community. “I felt my heart was at home and that was what I was looking for,” she says.
Pierce, in Bangalore as event ambassador for a race, is speaking to ESPN at the end of a day full of event-related commitments. She is a striking woman, warm and generous in telling her story. Many remember the statuesque, intense pro with gunshot-groundstrokes, a frown on her face and a long blonde braid down her back.
Pierce was the power-hitter who straddled the generations of Monica Seles and Serena Williams. Two Grand Slam titles from six finals, 18 WTA singles titles to her name, world No. 3 at her peak and, of course, the last French player to win the French Open (2000).
For the better part of the year now, Pierce is far removed from the weekly grind and glitz of the tennis circuit that had consumed her life entirely from the time she turned pro at age 14 (1989) until an on-court knee injury in 2006. In between spots of television commentary during Grand Slams and WTA finals, Pierce, 43, is mostly involved in the Black River church and community.
She coaches children in Mauritius, and is thinking of restarting an ITF circuit for women (named after her) in the Indian Ocean island nations. She is waiting for the ITF to restructure its calendar of events into what it intends to call a Transition Tour. Today, Mauritius and the church, Pierce says, is “spiritually the place I need to be”.
The public conversations of pro tennis players rarely involve spirituality or relationships with their god. News of Novak Djokovic’s inclusion of Pepe Imaz, a mind coach in tennis, in his entourage is greeted with some circumspection. Pierce has no such ambiguity about her relationship with God and the part it played in her tennis from the age of 25 onwards.
“I had been seeking and searching from 18 years old on, my own spiritual seeking,” she says. A friend on tour, the American pro Linda Wild, helped her find a way. In early 2000, the morning after a defeat at Indian Wells that had left her feeling “empty and miserable”, Pierce says she “gave my life to Jesus and was born again… things in me changed instantly.”
When she turned up three months later at Roland Garros, Pierce was asked by reporters whether she had done any mental training. She says she sees interviews of herself — before and after Indian Wells — on YouTube “and I can see my face was different… reporters asked me, ‘Have you done something? You don’t get mad on court, you’re not yelling, you are much calmer on important points. What did you do?’ I said nothing. God is in control of everything, I don’t have to worry. I knew my life was in his hands, my tennis, my results… it took off so much pressure and so much stress, and I was able to be so much more free. It changed everything.”
On June 10, 2000, she defeated Conchita Martinez to win the French Open, the first Frenchwoman in the Open era and the first French player since Yannick Noah, 1983.
Being a committed Christian on tour had its consequences. “Some friends were actually mad at me because I didn’t want to go out and drink with them any more. I just had no desire. I said it’s not fun for me any more. They thought I was boring, they didn’t know what to do with me. I was like sorry, I still like you but…”
Other players, however, came up to her, “feeling like they could share their problems with me, share their life, because they felt safe. They could trust me, I wasn’t going to talk to anybody and tell their stories. They felt that I cared and I could help them somehow.”
She reminds you that even today, the biggest challenge on the women’s tour — greater professionalism or not, equal prize money or not — is loneliness. “It’s a tough, tough life. People see everything from the outside, that it’s amazing, you’re travelling the world. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, a lot of sacrifice that you make, and you’re away from home and family and friends for most of the year. It’s not easy as it looks.”
It is why she always tells kids this: Love tennis passionately or you won’t make it. Surround yourself with good people you trust, with your best interest at their hearts or you will be miserable. Work hard, believe in the work and have a dream you want to accomplish — it will lift you when you are “down and doubting”.
The tennis tour she set up — the Mary Pierce Indian Ocean Series — is part of her wish to give young girls a path to the pros. She’d been coaching siblings in Mauritius since 2009 and when one of them turned 18, she looked for pro events for her to play in. “I noticed there was nothing in the area. There was a big need.”
So she created the circuit: four $10,000 events in 2015 (two events in Mauritius, one each in Madagascar and Reunion) and three events in 2016. In 2017, Pierce’s father was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and the circuit had to be put on hold as she was taking care of him.
It’s Jim Pierce she’s talking about, the tennis dad from hell before Damir Dokic, Jelena’s Dad, turned up. Jim Pierce, who had hammered tennis balls at her in training, abused opponents during matches. Who was banned from the WTA tour due to violent behaviour, attacked Pierce’s own bodyguard and then had a restraining order against him from his daughter.
My colleague Susan Ninan and I had been wracking our brains about how to bring up the subject of the troublesome parent. Then Jim Pierce’s name popped up and the question was stumbled through.
Pierce laughs, “It’s fine, I don’t mind talking about it.” From the time she started playing tennis, age 10, till she turned 18, she says, “it was pretty much a nightmare, and it got worse and worse every year.” As her rankings climbed, she hoped things would improve. “I thought, oh, he was going to chill out, he’s going to relax and he’s going to let me be. And it was the opposite, he got crazy and abusive and mean. It was really hell on earth and I couldn’t wait to be 18. I hated my Dad, I was afraid of him. Crazy, crazy stuff… So I never wanted to see him again.”
She left home in 1993, won the Australian Open in 1995 and, for the first time in two years, decided to speak to her father. “I thought, he helped me so much the least he deserves is for me to show him my trophy.” She fixed a meeting in a Florida hotel lobby — “a public place with a lot of people.” It was the briefest of interactions: “It was five minutes, it was very quick. I said, ‘Hi, here’s my trophy, have a look. You can hold it. Thanks, you have a part in it.'” She had made a decision. “And that was it, I was never going to see him again.”
Only three years later, with God at her side and a French Open to her name, she says she was asked to find a way to forgive her father. She had believed she was “never ever going to speak to or forgive him.” She smiles, “The Lord didn’t mess around. He [God] was pretty quick. He just cleaned everything out and one of the greatest miracles for me is to forgive my Dad and to love him.”
Her relationship with her father, who had divorced her mother and remarried, mended itself slowly. “I started to love my Dad and his wife, to take care of them and provide for them and we started to see each other, our relationship started to be restored.” Jim Pierce died last April, with his once-estranged daughter now taking care of him. “His heart was just deeply touched,” Mary says.
The distance covered by Pierce — from a serious 10-year-old who wanted to be a paediatrician to a woman now fully committed to her church — makes for a lifespan both transformed and transformative. The first time she hit a ball on court, a club coach asked her how long had she had been playing. “I said ‘about 45 minutes’ and he said ‘no, no, for how many days?’ I said, ‘It’s my first day.'” She was pitchforked into tennis lessons three times a week and joined the Tour inside five years.
Mary Pierce’s life in tennis had not begun, contrary to her advice to kids these days, with her loving the sport. “It wasn’t like that was what I had wanted to do with my life.”
Looking back she now believes things were, as Eastern cultures define it, “written”. It had been “God’s plan” for her life. “That He gave me that gift, that talent to be able to play that first day like I had been playing for years.”