Mary Pierce: Indian singles tennis players need killer instinct

The former world No. 3 speaks in an interview about life after tennis, the changing game, her favourite players and more.

Two-time Grand Slam singles champion Mary Pierce was in Delhi as an ambassador for the Roland Garros junior wild card tournament earlier this year.   -  Kamesh Srinivasan

Mary Pierce, on of the hardest hitters on the WTA circuit in her time, feels Indian tennis players are nice people, but they need to have a killer instinct in singles competition. “There is nothing wrong about being nice. It is important to be good. But I think when you get on the court and you are playing tennis, you are competing,” she says. “You have to want it badly. In doubles they do so well, as they are with someone who helps and motivates. You have got to have the fire. You should be motivating yourself when you are out there playing singles.”

The French former world No. 3 won the Australian Open at age 19 and lifted the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen at the 2000 French Open, where was also crowned the doubles champion with Martina Hingis. Pierce, who shifted base to Mauritius after retirement and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2019, has taken to coaching and mentoring, and says she hopes to open her academy some day.

In Delhi as an ambassador for the Roland Garros junior wild card tournament earlier this year, Pierce spoke to Sportstar about life after tennis, the changing game, her favourite players and more.

How happy are you with your association with tennis?

I am fairly happy. I have done some commentating and I am on the board of the ITF (International Tennis Federation) as the female player representative. I am in a few different committees and commissions of the ITF and the IOC (International Olympic Committee). I have been helping some young tennis players, coaching and mentoring them. I would like to do more. I would like to maybe do some training camps or have a training centre. I have some ideas. I will see, hopefully, if that can happen in the future.

“I like watching Roger Federer, obviously accepting what he does is absolutely incredible. You just can’t teach what he does,” says Mary Pierce.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Any interesting suggestions for women’s tennis?

Well, we have recently changed the format of the Fed Cup (renamed the Billie Jean King Cup), where we will have Fed Cup finals in Budapest, Hungary. So, I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out. Hopefully, it will be positive for the Fed cup, and for women’s tennis and the fans.

READ | Fed Cup to be re-named Billie Jean King Cup

Do you think the changes in the Davis Cup are good for the game?

I don’t know; we will see. It is very difficult because the top players were not playing the Davis Cup. I was wondering why. For me, it was always an honour and a privilege to play for my country. Nowadays, the players are wondering how much money they are going to get and what points they are going to get for their ranking. And when they realise there is not as much money, they will go somewhere else where they are maybe getting paid more to play a tournament, instead of playing the Davis Cup. So, that was disappointing. We tried to find a solution where we could get the top players to play against each other. So, we thought, well, we need to have more money and points. Also, the calendar is too saturated and that is why players wanted it to be done in one week. It is very difficult to make everybody happy – the players, the TV, the sponsors, the fans. We have tried to find the best format for the Davis Cup so that everybody is happy.

You have been conducting tournaments for women in Mauritius. How has been the experience?

Yes, I was very happy to organise a series of $10,000 tournaments for women in the Indian Ocean. It is the Mary Pierce Indian Ocean series, and a lot of players from India come to my tournament. It was very nice. Indian players are very respectful and they always have good, fair play. They come and talk to me and ask me questions. They ask me if I have an academy or training centre, as they would love to train there. I said, well, not yet, but maybe one day.

Are you planning to have any such centre?

Yes, I would like to. If I have that, then I would probably focus more on it. I have to figure out where to have it. I want it to be in a place where I live permanently so that I am not travelling. I don’t want to travel so much any more. I would rather be home, be in one place. People can come and train there. I will help them.

Pierce and Mahesh Bhupathi celebrate after winning the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon 2005. “It was such a great honour and privilege for me to play mixed doubles with Mahesh because he was such a great doubles player. I enjoyed playing with him very much. He is a real gentleman and a great competitor,” Pierce says.   -  AFP

 

Looking back at your career, how happy are you with it? Did you expect to achieve more?

It is amazing when I look back at my career. It was just incredible. I achieved my dream in tennis, which was to win the French Open. And then everything else is just a bonus really. You can also look at the other side of the coin and think about, well, all the other Grand Slam finals that I played and I didn’t win all of them. I could have had maybe six Grand Slam titles. I am very happy and very grateful with what I did in my career. I am very proud.

Despite your strong self belief, how hard was it to deal with the situation when the results were not good for you? The return from back pain, the harsh comment by a random person...

No, I think we all have difficult moments in our career. We all have ups and downs. I remember having them. I thought, am I really going to make it? Am I going to achieve my dreams and my goals? That is when it is really important to have a great team around you. I remember my strength-and-conditioning coach often would give me good pep talks, motivating me and helping me when I had moments when I was down. That particular story when that one man was kind of laughing at me while I was training to prepare for the French Open, it didn’t affect me in that sense because inside I knew that I was not finished, and I knew that I still had great things to accomplish. I just thought, okay, he has the right to his opinion, like everybody, and he can take that if he wants. But I know in my heart that it is not the truth and there are still great things to achieve.

How important is the coach-and-player relationship?

It is really important. Your coach plays such a vital role in your career. You better make sure that you have the right one who fits and works with you. The right fit, because you spend so much time with that person. They help you develop your game and help you in those difficult moments when you are down or haven’t been doing well or you are injured. For me, in my career, I had the great fortune to work with some of the best coaches in the world. And I remember trying to play a tournament once when I thought I am going to have no coach and I have got a lot of experience. I know the girls and I know what to do. I went to a tournament by myself and I am like, “Oh my gosh, I hate it.” I just felt so alone. You feel lonely and then it is like there is not as much motivation. You realise it helps to have support. You are not doing everything by yourself. It is good to have those eyes from outside that see things that you don’t.

READ | Federer, Serena confirmed for Australian Open

Steffi Graf or Serena Williams, who is better in your eyes?

Well, I think you just have to look at the results and look at the number of titles. You know Serena has more titles. Steffi did accomplish the Golden Slam where she won the Grand Slam that year (all four majors in 1988) plus the (Olympic) gold medal, which was incredible. Whether you are pushed hard or not, you still have to win the Grand Slam. What Serena does is amazing.

From the current crop, who do you like to watch among the women and the men?

I like watching Serena. She is just an incredible competitor. I love her aggressive game. I love watching Nick Kyrgios. He is entertaining. I like watching Roger Federer, obviously accepting what he does is absolutely incredible. You just can’t teach what he does.

When will we see a French Grand Slam champion?

I don’t know. That is a good question. I like Caroline Garcia. She has the potential, but she is not up there yet. There is a lot of work to do for her to win a Grand Slam. There is a young girl named Diane Parry. She’s pretty good. She reminds me of Amélie Mauresmo a little bit. We’re keeping our eyes open for her in the future.

Pierce won the singles title at the 2000 French Open, where she was also crowned the doubles champion with Martina Hingis. “It is amazing when I look back at my career. It was just incredible. I achieved my dream in tennis, which was to win the French Open. And then everything else is just a bonus really,” she says.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Has the game become more physical, leading to top players competing less in doubles?

I think that’s a good point. I used to play doubles, mixed doubles and singles all the time. That really helps your game and having an all-round game. Today it is so rare to see a singles player compete in doubles. It really makes a difference and I would like to see the singles players playing doubles again. They may think that they can’t. I think they can, as they are fit and strong. Today’s tennis is more of power-baseline. I would like to see more serve and volley. I would like to see more of an all-court game.

Many players aspire to reach the top. What is it that separates a player with the spark from the others?

I kind of like that look in their eyes. They are much more focused and have a more serious approach. They are more professional towards how they approach their tennis and how they prepare for their practice. How they are in their warm-ups? Did they bring all their equipment and things they need in their bag? Their attitude on the court, the intensity that they bring. The interest that they have in the game. They ask questions as they want to learn. They are students. I was so surprised when I was speaking to Ivan Ljubičić, Roger Federer’s coach, when we were in the plane together from Melbourne to Dubai. We were chatting in the flight. He was telling me that he had never seen anyone so passionate about tennis as Roger, who is such a student of the game. It goes to show you why Roger is so good. He is always open to talk about tennis, to learn something. He doesn’t think he knows everything and it is an important quality to remain humble and to be a student of the game.

Sania Mirza had that spark even when she was 16, and she played doubles with you in a WTA event. What did you notice that made her stand out?

There were many things, but I think her power stood out the most. I was just so impressed by how hard she could hit the ball. There were a lot of unforced errors, but as she continued to train and with age, she obviously made fewer and fewer unforced errors, and became a very dangerous player, a great player.

READ | Mary Pierce: Wasn't surprised when Sania developed into a top player

How has been your association with Mahesh Bhupathi with whom you won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 2005?

It was such a great honour and privilege for me to play mixed doubles with Mahesh because he was such a great doubles player. I enjoyed playing with him very much. He is a real gentleman and a great competitor. It was a lot of fun to play with him. He was just an amazing player. I remember being on the court with him and sometimes he hit a shot and I was just like, “Wow, how did he do that!” Amazing shots. So, I felt very fortunate to play with him and to win that mixed doubles title in Wimbledon in 2005. We became friends and stayed in touch. I did some commentary for the IPTL (International Premier Tennis League) in a Mumbai studio.

What do we need to do to see our singles players excel in the Grand Slams?

You have got to have a killer instinct when you are on court. I think Indian people are very nice. There is nothing wrong about being nice. It is important to be good. But I think when you get on the court and you are playing tennis, you are competing. And you have got to have a killer instinct. You have to want it badly. In doubles they do so well, as they are with someone who helps and motivates. You have got to have the fire. You should be motivating yourself when you are out there playing singles.