Mary Pierce on winning French Open 20 years ago and 'huge miracle' of forgiving her abusive father

Vicki Hodges
The Telegraph
Mary Pierce beat Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Conchita Martinez on way to winning 2000 French Open - Reuters
Mary Pierce beat Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Conchita Martinez on way to winning 2000 French Open - Reuters

With both feet aloft in mid-air, her long blonde plait rising above her head, Mary Pierce circled her racket between her legs and executed a perfect ‘tweener’.

Monica Seles could only look on as the ball sailed past before kissing the baseline. The incredible shot, the highlight of Pierce’s 2000 French Open quarter-final win over the third-seeded American, has been watched millions of times on YouTube.

It was the start of a heady few days. Victory over the top-ranked Martina Hingis followed before the crescendo of defeating clay-court specialist Conchita Martinez as Pierce claimed her second grand slam, and first on the red dust, 20 years ago.

“My dream in tennis came true,” Pierce tells Telegraph Sport from her home in Florida after leaving the south of France, where she had been coaching before lockdown.

“On top of winning the French Open, along the way I hit the most amazing shot of my career. Then there was the epic match against Martina Hingis where we’re both cramping in the third set.”

The memories are flooding back as Pierce, who was born in Canada to an American father and French mother, retells the story of her unexpected victory when she became the first Frenchwoman to win in Paris since Francoise Durr’s 1967 success. To this day, she remains the last French player, male or female, to win the second major of the year.

“The vibrations of the crowd’s voices together was so powerful. It hits you deep in your core for what you feel, what you live for," Pierce, who should have been at Roland Garros today on what would have been the women's singles final before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the major until late September, added.

Aside from a run to the final of her home slam in 1994, Pierce’s other nine showings in Paris had not yielded a run beyond the fourth round. The odds were stacked further against Pierce adding the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup to her 1995 Australian Open silverware when an injury sustained before the major threatened her chance of taking part.

But life took a dramatic twist for Pierce in 2000. For a player whose outstanding natural ability was haunted by the gloomy shadow of her abusive father and coach, Pierce was finally able to come through the darkness.

It was in the March at Indian Wells where the Catholic-raised Pierce became a born-again Christian.

“I woke up in my hotel room one morning and I felt I couldn’t keep living my life this way. That’s the moment I prayed, repented of all my sins and gave my life to Jesus.”

It also led to the ‘huge miracle’ of Pierce forgiving her father Jim for the hurt and suffering he caused with his brutal, drill-sergeant training methods and foul-mouthed courtside outbursts which led to the Women’s Tennis Association banning him from attending all tour matches in 1993.

“Our relationship was reconciled. I could love him, which was a huge miracle, and my life just totally changed 20 years ago.”

Mary Pierce didn't start playing tennis until she was 10 - Getty Images
Mary Pierce didn't start playing tennis until she was 10 - Getty Images

Looking back, does she wish things could have been different? That she had not been coached by her father?

“If my dad wasn’t my coach, and things hadn’t happened the way they did, I’d just say to myself, well that’s how it’s supposed to be, that was my path,” she said.

“If I wasn’t strong mentally, physically, emotionally then I wouldn’t have been able to handle the way he trained me. It made me tough, it made me strong, it made me resilient.”

Pierce, now 45, admits that cutting ties with her family when she was 18, and starting to work with a ‘professional’ coach was a relief. “It was nice not to live in fear anymore.”

She is considerate as she reflects on the latter years of her father’s life. When his hard exterior softened and he apologised for his behaviour.

“I think he might have said once that he was sorry for everything,” Pierce said. “But that was very late on in his life. My father got very sick in February 2016 with bladder cancer. I was with him from A to Z in the whole process, all the hospital appointments, the operations. I knew his medications, his timings, his dosages, I knew it better than his nurses. 

Jim Pierce was banned by the WTA from attending tournaments in 1993 - Getty Images
Jim Pierce was banned by the WTA from attending tournaments in 1993 - Getty Images

“I wanted to make sure he was well taken care of, because I knew he could be in a lot of pain if not properly taken care of. I didn’t want him to be in any pain or suffer.

“I was able to be with him when he passed away in April 2017. In the later stages of being sick he also gave his life to Jesus, he really softened. He really changed.”

That Pierce’s father dedicated his own life to her tennis career is astounding given he had no background in the sport. 

Pierce, who divides her time between coaching in the south of France, Mauritius and America, only took up tennis by chance when she was 10 and joined her best friend on court during one of her lessons. 

“At the end of the session, the head of the tennis club came up to me, asked who I was and how long I’d been playing. I said ‘45 minutes’, to which he replied ‘no, how many years’. I said it was my first day.”

Asked to return the next day with her parents, Pierce’s life changed overnight. A few months after playing tennis three days a week, she was entering tournaments. Four years on, Pierce was on the professional circuit and winning titles.

Tennis had never been an ambition, nor a dream. She considered a career in medicine, and was keen on becoming a paediatrician, but out of fear, she wouldn’t quit playing. “My dad was so strong, I was scared and felt I can’t say no.”

Aside from the intimidation and abuse, Pierce spoke glowingly of her father’s dedication.

“When I look at what my dad did, I think that was incredible,” she said. “To have no tennis background but he was there every single lesson that I took, listened and watched what the coaches would say, he read all the tennis magazines, he watched and taped every match on TV.”

Dedication and hard work are two vital components Pierce expects from her own tennis proteges. Pierce, who also won the French Open doubles title in 2000 alongside Hingis, says she is ‘very serious’ but adds “at the end of the day, you’ve got to have fun”.

She flashes a radiant smile with that last remark. Tennis might not have been Pierce’s career ambition in her formative days, but her passion for the sport today cannot be questioned.

When asked about the likelihood of a merger between the men’s and women’s governing bodies, Pierce, who is on the ITF Board of Directors as the female player representative and the women’s chair of the ITF Players' Panel is overflowing and fervent in her response.

“I believe the best events will be the combined events like Indian Wells, like Miami. The season should be shorter, have less tournaments and there should be minor and major leagues, like in baseball. 

“There’s an elite group, not a ton, and these tournaments will go around the world, showcasing the best players over a 10-day or two-week period.”

It is a vision she has had since 2000. Since that audacious shot between the legs, her maiden French Open and the year she wrote the next chapter of her life. 

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