French Open: Mary Pierce on Roland Garros win & tumultuous journey to peace

By Jonathan JurejkoBBC Sport
Mary Pierce kisses the French Open trophy after winning Roland Garros in 2000
As well as the 2000 French Open, Mary Pierce won the 1995 Australian Open and 16 other WTA singles titles

Offers to write a book have long been made to Mary Pierce. There is quite a story to tell.

There is the professional journey: emerging on the WTA Tour aged 14, switching national allegiance to France because of a lack of support from the United States, winning a couple of Grand Slams under le Tricolore, retiring aged 31 after a distressing on-court collapse with a ruptured knee ligament.

There is the personal journey: entrenched in an "abusive" relationship with her father and coach Jim, ostracising him in her late teens and a later reconciliation, becoming a born-again Christian at the height of her playing career, demanding inner fulfilment ever since.

Physically, those journeys have taken her all over the planet. From winning major titles in Melbourne and Paris, to missionary projects in Africa.

Mentally, they have taken her from emptiness and frustration, to peace and salvation.

"If I tell my story then it has to have a purpose, a reason to inspire and motivate people, to give them hope from what I've been through," she told BBC Sport.

Now 45, Pierce says she is still "work in progress". In the current predicament her journey only continues to be a spiritual one, having been rooted in Florida during the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, she should have been on a trans-Atlantic trip to Roland Garros, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her famous French Open win. No home player has won a Roland Garros singles title since.

"Winning in front of the French crowd, my crowd, was unique. It was a magical and powerful moment," said Pierce, who fought off Spain's Conchita Martinez to fulfil her dream.

Pierce's hard-hitting game had long been the type associated with success on the Parisian clay. Aged 19, she lost to Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1994 final.

Overbearing expectation from a country starved of home success was exacerbated by her victory at the 1995 Australian Open.

With the pressure often suffocating, she was unable to move past the Roland Garros last 16 in each of the following five years.

That all changed in 2000. That's when she became a born-again Christian.

"Everyone knows my difficult childhood and my father being my coach and abusive," she said.

"I was looking for the truth, answers to my questions, something that was going to bring me peace and heal my heart.

"I started to read a lot about psychology and self-help, new age and different religions.

"My career had been going up and up, winning my first Grand Slam as a 20-year-old and reaching number three in the world. From the outside it seemed it couldn't get any better."

In the year before her Roland Garros triumph, Pierce struck up a friendship with fellow tour player Linda Wild. She had noticed "something special" in the American's character and demeanour, which Pierce put down to the devout Wild "having Jesus in her heart".

The pair started hanging out more on tour, leading to Wild asking Pierce - who was "raised Catholic and went to mass every Sunday as a child" - more about her beliefs.

Enlightenment followed for the world number four.

"I got to Roland Garros and the media were saying 'you look so different, you've changed, you are more peaceful and calm, you don't get so mad anymore at important points, have you done some mental training?'" said Pierce, whose friendship with Wild remains strong today.

"I explained I hadn't. 'It is just that my life belongs to God now. It is in his hands and his control so I have nothing to worry about'.

"It totally changed my outlook.

"That took off all the pressure and stress that always came with the French Open, and the difficulties of performing at my best there."

The story of Pierce's toxic relationship with her father has been well told over the years.

There were public dressing downs after matches. One at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was reported to have seen her flee into the locker room crying.

There were terrifying tirades at opponents. There was the infamous instruction of "Mary, kill the bitch" during an on-court pep talk.

In 1993, her now-notorious father was banned by the WTA from attending events. Nevertheless, the incidents escalated.

Shortly after Pierce distanced herself, he instigated a fist fight with her newly-hired bodyguard in an Italian hotel corridor.

The minder returned with a knife and stabbed him in the arm, which he claimed left "blood pumping everywhere" and resulted in a four-inch scar.

"By the time I was 18 I was like, 'I'm out of here. I'm an adult and no-one can tell me what to do anymore'," she said.

The pair did reconcile after her spiritual rebirth, leading to what she says became a "wonderful" relationship. In 2017, he died from cancer aged 81.

Mary Pierce and her mother Yannick, whose country of birth she represented
Born in Canada and raised in the US, Pierce switched to France aged 13. Her mother Yannick was born in Paris before moving to Montreal to study

Following retirement in 2006, which came after tearing a cruciate ligament in a harrowing on-court scene, she spent time as a missionary in Africa.

In Mauritius, the work included feeding kids what "would sometimes be their only meal of the day", teaching English and helping with homework.

In Zimbabwe, she cared for patients in the geriatric wing of a hospital. Washing hair and cutting nails were among her tasks.

The future for her, like everyone during the pandemic, is less clear. Tennis is still integral to her plans and there is talk of opening a training centre.

Coaching and mentoring younger players seems to be the avenue she favours, although a full-time return to the professional tour - there have been offers to work with players on the ATP and WTA tours - seems to have been ruled out.

"I discovered coaching when I was in Mauritius. The two kids of my neighbours were playing tennis and all of a sudden their coach went back to France, they had no-one to coach them," she said.

"I thought 'I'm here! Hello! I'll help you guys out temporarily until you find a solution'. I ended up doing it for five years.

"I love to help and give back, to make a difference. And to see what I've been through, my struggles and errs can help someone else not make the same mistakes I did.

"The desire of my heart is to do something I'm excited about and passionate about, that will have a global impact, touch the lives of many people and change their lives for the better."

Mary Pierce and Martina Hingis lift the French Open women's doubles title in 2000
As well as the singles, Pierce also won the French Open women's doubles alongside Swiss great Martina Hingis in 2000

Top Stories

Explore the BBC

Featured