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Tennis - Comeback of the People's Champion

By Michael Cecilio
Saturday, April 6th, 2002

Many had already long forgotten about her. Those who hadn't forgotten had probably thought she was as good as washed up. Despite her innate ability to "whack the bejeezus" out of a tennis ball (and the fame and fortune she has amassed as a result of it), the last two years have been a flurry of ill-fated injuries and inconsistencies in the on-court life of Mary Pierce.

Yes, that player who looked invincible at her home Grand Slam tournament at Roland Garros less than two years ago is the same player who has taken a slide down the rankings and fallen below opponents she would have eaten for breakfast on a good day.

Such is the enigma of Mary Pierce. Many have been caught in awe by this intriguing, often mesmerising, persona. Much of that enigma has stemmed from an often times torrid and well-publicized childhood, trying to deal with the rigours of a professional tennis career and a father who often pushed above and beyond the line. Much of the intrigue developed as she became somewhat of a fashion icon or the glamour girl of the WTA tour during the pre-Anna Kournikova era.

Furthermore, the talented Pierce evokes a confusion and bewilderment throughout the tennis establishment, going from the sublime to the ridiculous from match to match (often game to game), hitting supreme winners from any part of the court with ease one minute and swinging for the fences the next. She has the talent to beat the best players in the world on any given day, yet could lose to your grandmother the next.

Perhaps it is her unpredictable nature that has made her so renowned and so "loved" with tennis fans worldwide. One just does not know what to expect when they show up to see a Mary Pierce match. If it's not a new fashion ensemble she's donning for her Nike label, it's for her fidgety, fussy, fickle nature on-court. The eyedrops, the stretches, the shoelaces, the skirt, the hair, the necklace, the racquet strings all get paid good attention by Mary on court.

If it's not a sublime winner, it's a mistake a club player wouldn't have missed. Perhaps what makes her so "loved" is the human element she shows on court. Undoubtedly, Mary is not the typical icy, stoic champion you would get from Chris Evert, Monica Seles, or Steffi Graf. On any given day, she can beat anybody. Some days, she just happens to beat herself. The emotion she exhibits on court, whether it is frustration from an untimely mistake or joy from a purely struck winner, allows the spectators to "feel" the match, not just to watch.

Everybody loves a "human champion," a person who wins against the odds or a person who exhibits a sense of charm, charisma, or compassion. Mary is that player spectators loved to identify with. There were those who loved her for all her quirks and mannerisms and of course for that big, powerful game she brought to the court. Then there were those who couldn't stand her for all of those aforementioned reasons. Whatever the case was, Mary allowed her personality to come through on the court, whether she was losing or winning she was doing things on her terms.

Moreover, the humility and groundedness she possesses for a person who has experienced as much as she has and has succeeded in her field as much as she has, is truly admirable and amazing. In a selfish world that is the WTA tour, Mary has risen above and beyond the cattiness and has truly developed into a thoughtful, mature, spiritual, and intelligent ambassador for the game.

For all of her success and for all of her individuality, it is surprising that media attention has been relatively lacking in recent years. It was not so long ago she was at the top of the tennis tree with the Williamses, with Hingis, and with Davenport. In fact, she is the last person to win a Grand Slam who is not named Venus or Jennifer. Yet for some reason, the attention never seemed to sway in her direction, even during her title run at Roland Garros in 2000 (relatively speaking, of course).

It's hard to say whether the media felt she was too inconsistent to be given the attention as a top player, or whether she was not the controversial, "larger than life" personality that the Williamses and Hingis often portray, or whether she was even superseded in the glamour stakes by Kournikova. What is for certain is that Mary received the level of attention which belied her success and stature in the game. Much more could have been done to market this femme fatale, this enigma, this amazing talent, as one of the leading characters in the story of the Sanex WTA tour, yet she has taken a back seat as her contemporaries take the centre stage.

She has endured several comebacks in her 15-year career, but the one she currently embarks on will prove to be the toughest one to date. There is no doubt that those in the tennis establishment are doubtful whether Mary can rise to the ranks she soared post Roland Garros 2000. She will always have the talent to be considered as one of the major contenders, but inconsistency, "wear and tear" with age, and an ever increasing improvement from the rest of the field will make life difficult for Pierce as she attempts this comeback.

Returning to her career-high ranking of No. 3 as recently as July 2000, Mary has plummeted to No. 295 at the time of writing. Surely a poor indication of her talent, but an accurate reflection of the struggle she has endured with injuries which hit her one after the other after the other. Her comeback match at Sarasota against the former doubles No. 1 Ai Sugiyama was simply flawless, displaying her trademark power groundstrokes to record a 6-3 6-3 win.

Her follow-up match against Russia's Anastasia Myskina proved to be a more difficult task, losing a nailbiter 6-4 3-6 7-6(4). Despite the loss, many positive things can be taken from this result. Given her lack of match play, Mary competed amazingly well under the circumstances. She was able to fight and make it competitive, and last the distance without incurring any of the aches and pains of the past.

Is this an indication of how her comeback will proceed? Only time will tell. What is good for Mary at this point is that she will play for her and only for her. She is no longer playing to defend a ranking. She is not playing to please her sponsors, her father, or her coach - she is simply playing for herself, and I believe that this is what will make her comeback. She has achieved everything she has ever wanted to achieve in tennis, winning Roland Garros was a dream that became a reality, and thus anything else is a bonus.

Can she compete for another Roland Garros title in less than two months time? In a way, Mary will be "defending" the title she was unable to defend last year due to injury, and could be a source of belief and of motivation to do well. It is quite likely that with a good draw and sufficient match play, Mary is going to make her first big dent in 2002 at Roland Garros.

There is no way that someone with that abundance of talent can sit at No. 295 for much longer. Barring any further injuries, a shot at the Top 40 by year's end is a reasonable and attainable goal. A shot at even greater glory for 2003 will be her biggest challenge as she works to battle against the top level once again.

Forgotten Mary Pierce? Believe she is ready to receive her gold watch? I wouldn't be too hasty to discount Mary's chances for the rest of the year. A positive start in Sarasota was what she needed to believe she could still play tennis. A shot at the claycourt season will give her the match play and toughness she needs to believe she can win again. A shot at Roland Garros will re-establish her as a top contender.

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