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Mary Pierce and the French Open: An affair to remember

Even as the media jostled for time and space to feature something on the 20th anniversary of Mary Pierce and her historic championship run at the French Open, for the player in question it was a trip down the memory lane.

“It’s a great honour to win Roland Garros when you’re French. It’s hard to describe how I felt when I won because it was so incredible. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for your whole career. Its years of training, all the suffering, everything you do for 15 years for one moment of victory, glory, reward. It’s extraordinary,” she was quoted as saying on the tournament’s official website.

While a player getting emotional about the most memorable moment of her career is palpable, and understandable, there is a lot more than nostalgia attached to Mary Pierce’s triumph at the French Open in 2000. For starters, it ended a 33-year wait for a French champion, and it fulfilled the expectations of an entire nation.

The last occasion a Frenchwoman had managed to win the singles title at Roland Garros, Francoise Dürr, tennis was yet to turn professional. Like Dürr in 1967, Pierce also won the doubles competition in 2000.

Not since Martina Navratilova in 1984 had a woman won both the singles and doubles title at Roland Garros in the same year. No one has achieved the feat since.

From the moment she decided to represent France, despite also having both American and Canadian citizenship, there were undercurrents of a platonic love affair between Pierce and the French fans. Her title triumph in 2000 has made it an affair to remember.

First impressions

It is no surprise that Pierce made her Grand Slam debut at the French Open, in 1990. Handed a wild card, she eased past Argentine Bettina Fulco (6-0 6-1) in the opening round before losing to Mary Joe Fernandez in the second round. Even though she lost in straight sets against the seventh seeded American, the 15-year-old had shown glimpses of her potential.

In the following year Pierce went a step further, making it to the third round before losing to Argentine Gabriela Sabatini. After successive losses to Jennifer Capriati in the fourth round in both 1992 and 1993, the Canadian-born player finally made her much awaited breakthrough in the 1994 edition of the tournament.

While the fact that Pierce made it to the final at Roland Garros that year was impressive, even more impressive was the dominating nature of that run. The crowd favorite conceded just 10 games en route to the final, and that included a 6-2 6-2 annihilation of defending champion and top seed Steffi Graf in the semifinal.

A title triumph would have been an icing on the cake, and would have sent an already ecstatic nation into delirium. However, it wasn’t to be. The pressure of playing her first Grand Slam singles final, while shouldering the burden of expectations, proved too much for the then-19-year-old. The fact that she was playing an experienced opponent and former champion in Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario didn’t help matters either. Pierce lost in straight sets.

In fact, despite 1994 being her breakthrough year in more ways than one, the fact is that the Frenchwoman lost all of the five finals she contested that year. That disappointing run of results in tournament finals albeit ended in the following year when Pierce won her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, getting the better of Sanchez-Vicario on this occasion.

Spasmodic performances, sporadic successes

A maiden Major title, career high ranking (No.3), and all the related attention affected Pierce’s performances considerably in both 1995 and the following year. The Frenchwoman struggled for consistency, form, and most importantly tournament wins. There was a one-off performance (the Australian Open final in 1997), and an odd title (the 1997 Italian Open), but nothing that could substantiate the contention that she was improving as a player. Her performances in Roland Garros in those years were forgettable to say the least.

It was not until 1998 that Pierce got back to winning ways. Her results that year had a modicum of consistency. She was finally doing what was expected of her: win trophies. After losing 12 of her 15 finals between 1994 and 1997, the Frenchwoman won four of her five title deciders in 1998.

Pierce continued with her turnaround in 1999 and was in good form heading into the clay court season. She made it to final of big ticket events in Hamburg and Rome but came up short against Venus Williams on both the occasions. If these performances had raised any hopes among fans of another impressive run at the French Open they were left disappointed. Her charge at Roland Garros that year was cut short by Conchita Martinez, whom she had beaten in both Hamburg and Rome. In their second round clash the unseeded Spaniard came back from a set down to beat the seventh seed.

Double Delight

By March 2000 Pierce had self-admittedly become “a born-again Christian” and after years of tumult as regards her personal space had completely changed as a person, with a different outlook towards life. This helped her become less stressed and more focused, thereby ensuring overall improvement as an individual. That translated into good performances on the court.

In the run up to the 2000 French Open Pierce won the Tier I tournament at Hilton Head Island, steamrolling over Sanchez 6-1 6-0. In early rounds at Roland Garros it seemed an encore of 1994, with Pierce breaking little sweat–and dropping just 13 games–in her first four matches.

The later rounds expectedly posed a bigger challenge. Three-time champion Monica Seles, seeded third, won the opening set in their quarterfinal clash before Pierce came back to win in three. Next up was top seed Martina Hingis. The Swiss had been a losing finalist in the year before and was not willing to give up sans a fight. It was another three-set affair, the Frenchwoman being the dominant player in the third.

Martinez was the other finalist. On this occasion the Spaniard was seeded higher, fifth to Pierce’s sixth, after having won the Tier I tournament in Berlin and reached the final at Amelia Island ahead of the year’s second Major. It didn’t matter. Pierce was ready to take her chance on this occasion. She won in straight sets (6-2 7-5).

“Winning the French Open, for me, was the most amazing experience in my tennis career because that’s when my dream came true,” she later admitted to the media.

A year after being shown the exit door early by Martinez, Pierce had her revenge, and at a stage where it matters. Despite her impressive clay court credentials the Spaniard, a former Wimbledon champion, never got another chance to win the title at Roland Garros.

Pierce, partnering Hingis, also won the doubles competition–her first Grand Slam doubles titles.

Final hurrah

Memorable it was, but the French Open triumph also hastened Pierce’s decline as a player. A back injury meant she couldn’t defend her title the following year. Besides, persistent injuries and lack of play meant she fell well outside of the Top 100 in 2001. Even though she made most of her wild card and made it to the quarterfinals in 2002, without dropping a set, Serena Williams proved too strong–the American winning 6-1 6-1 and proceeding to win the title.

In 2005, a 30-year-old Pierce surprised all and perhaps herself as well, by stringing together a slew of impressive results. In that consistent run was included a third appearance in the title clash of the French Open. En route, she accounted for top seed Lindsay Davenport in the last eight. However, in Justin Henin she encountered a much superior opponent who was at the top her game. The Belgian won the decider 6-1 6-1 in just over an hour. As it turned out, it was Pierce’s final appearance in her beloved tournament.

Her triumph at the 2000 French Open was Pierce’s 15th career title. Though she managed to win three more trophies that memorable result in Paris remains her last Grand Slam singles title. Roland Garros is also Pierce’s best Grand Slam in terms of match wins. In her 15 appearances at the French capital Pierce compiled a 44-14 singles record.

“Roland Garros feels like home to me,” Pierce told in an exclusive interview. “It’s my favorite tournament. I had some of the most special moments and memories in my tennis career there.”

It’s been more than 20 years since Mary Pierce emerged triumphant in Paris. She remains the only Frenchwoman to have won at Roland Garros in the Open Era. By the looks of it, she is likely to retain that distinction for the near future.

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