Tuesday, January 03, 2006

2006 Intriguing Question #2

Mary Pierce's career has personified many things over the last seventeen years, from all that is bad about tennis to the things that make it great, as well.

Tennis Dad Syndrome. Great highs. Injury-induced lows. Multiple comebacks.

Under the circumstances, Pierce could have assumed that she'd gotten about as much out of her career as possible, though her talent seemingly had made her capable of so much more. But rather than sit back and admire what she's was able to accomplish, she's still looking to fill in a few of the blanks in her career resume. After a remarkable mid-to-late year run that included a 28-4 tour record over the final six months, two slam final appearances and two Tier I titles at age 30, she publicly set her sights on a run at the #1 ranking in 2006.

After making such a grand and purposeful statement, she didn't pull the covers over her head, either. Instead, she just showed up at the WTA Championships in L.A., beat the world #1 and #2, then battled the #3 to three sets in the final. With such a run of results behind her, it would certainly seem that her upcoming season goal isn't so much grandiose as a truly legitimate. possibility.

But, really...


Pierce's career is the tennis equivalent of a Rorschach test. How do you judge this now nearly 31-year old woman who's won two slam titles separated by five years, then after five more mostly inconsequential seasons found herself in two slam finals in 2005 in a career twilight that most (Pierce included) didn't really think she had in her not that long ago. Whether or not you think she's had a Hall of Fame-type career likely depends on your own prejudices regarding talent and expectations. How do you balance exquisite potential with results that, while occasionally superior, quite frankly leave a lasting tinge of disappointment once the smoke has cleared?

In various brief pockets of time, Pierce has accomplished a great deal through the years, but she finds her career somewhat "on the bubble" between Hall of Fame quality, and that of the "Hall of Pretty Good." A slight difference it would seem to be, but it's sometimes a wide gulf when it comes to judging athletic achievement.

Pierce's career began with her being a curiosity, one of the latest "hot young things." In 1989, at 14, she was the youngest American to ever turn pro (a year before Jennifer Capriati did it at age 13). But she garnered more headlines not for her tennis, but for her father's boorish and sometimes abusive behavior (Jim Pierce was being banned from WTA tournament grounds long before anyone had ever heard of Damir Dokic).

Though he had driven his daughter to the brink (and beyond), father-serving-as-coach Jim Pierce had also developed a very talented tennis player... but it took a while for Mary's results to reflect it, likely because of the ongoing mental anguish inflicted upon her by her father. The strained relationship led to an estrangment, during which Pierce took up with Nick Bollettieri and her career finaly began to hit stride.

Pierce's talent -- and cannon-like groundstrokes -- finally guided her past all the early controversy. Playing under a French flag (her mother is French, her father American... and she was born in Canada), she broke through with an Australian Open title in 1995. By the end of the year, she'd risen to a career-best #3 ranking and everyone thought that the time had come for Pierce to fully come into her own on a tennis court. But it didn't happen.

She made it back to the Australian Open final again, but it would be five long years before she would fully rise to the occasion again, taking the '00 Roland Garros crown. Again, some thought that Pierce was setting herself up for a mid-career surge of continued big-time success at age 25. But, again, it didn't happen that way. This time, injuries wreaked havoc with her results, fitness and schedule for over three years.

Pierce could have given up, taken her two slam crowns and retired a rich, accomplished former athlete. But she wouldn't have had a "special" career. Maybe somewhere deep within her pysche, Pierce realized this... and wanted more. Thus began the slow 5-year climb rarely seen from a player of her age, and usually only the norm for a player a decade Pierce's junior.

*PIERCE's RANKING - 2001-05*
2001: #130
2002: #52
2003: #33
2004: #29
2005: #5

She skipped the 2004 Australian Open due to "lack of fitness," but continued to work hard to put herself into position for what would likely be her last chance for a late-career resurgence. Finally, it began to work. A few weeks later, she reached the Paris Indoors final, her first WTA final since winning Roland Garros in 2000. A few months after that, she won her first title in four years in the Netherlands, her first ever career crown on grass. She rose into the Top 30 for the first time since 2001. If her career had ended then and there, she would have proven something to herself and others about not allowing her injury problems to take her away from the sport for good.

But then came 2005.

After a slow few months, Pierce finally put together the best extended big-event run of her career. In that electric six month stretch, she advanced to the finals of both Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, had her career-best result at Wimbledon (QF), won Tier I titles at San Diego and Moscow, then stole the show by knocking off both #1 Lindsay Davenport and #2 Kim Clijsters en route to the WTA Championships final. As the season closed, she'd returned to the Top 5 and led the tour in major finals (slam/Tier I/YEC), tied with Davenport with five, one ahead of Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne. It was a truly magical period for Pierce.

In a way, her entire career has had a certain "odd" magic about it. Constantly overcoming obstacles and occasionally rising to big heights, only to be brought down low by circumstances yet again, there's always been a tightrope-walking quality to Pierce. Through it all, she still retains a faint whiff of all the old controversy she's long since overcome (no wonder Jelena Dokic seeks to use her as an inspiration), combined with the potential for crisp brilliance. It says something about Pierce's gift for the dramatic that while she trails 30-ish counterpart Davenport 51-18 in career titles, she's much closer when it comes to comparing slams, trailing Davenport just 3-2 in titles and 7-6 in finals. Pierce has always managed to "find herself" at the biggest moment.

Still, her long periods off the big stage have led her to Pierce being overshadowed by the likes of Capriati, Hingis, the Williams sisters, etc. over the years. It's difficult to be quite sure what it is that makes Pierce such an intriguing figure... maybe it's that she's never completely given in or given up, and always lurked around the corner as an imposing dark horse "if she could just get herself right," even when her presence on tour was minimal at best.

It's the paradox that has always been Mary Pierce. When in top shape, few can hit the ball harder and with more accuracy than she can, but prolonged periods of good health have been few and far between. But is the Mary Pierce of 2005-06 different?

Well, it was the "bad" aspects of her family situation (Mary and Jim have since reconciled, to some degree) that first brought Pierce to the forefront, but it's been the "good" aspects that have helped to give her a better sense of herself on and off court. She's now coached by her brother David, and the relationship seems to have worked wonders. 2005 presented us with the image of Pierce being more comfortable in her own skin than ever before.

But Pierce has gotten cagey in her "old" age, too. Just ask Elena Dementieva, who witnessed her by-hook-or-by-crook tactics in last year's U.S. Open semifinal, as Pierce stretched the injury timeout rules to the outer barriers of the universe without technically ever breaking any rules. Pierce maintained that she didn't want to play if she "wasn't at her best"... but whether it be pride or pugnacity, it worked. Pierce now knows her body well enough not to push it beyond it's limit or to place her health in a position of danger. It's a good thing, too, for one more major injury could spell the end of her career at this point. She realizes she's still capable of accomplishing something great, and knows not to jeopardize that opportunity just because it might not win her any Miss Congeniality awards.

This Pierce can see the finish line, and understands that breaking through the tape with one more trophy in hand is the difference between a "pretty good" career and "great" one. She's trying desperately to get what's her's before she exits through the stage door, and she's suddenly giddy about the discovery of a window of time during which she can do it.

It's called 2006, and this is the year she has a shot to slip through the back door and onto the big stage right before the youthful brigade hits its collective peak, right after the Williams dominance and at a time when, ironically, injuries to other top players puts a premium on just being able to make it to the court on a semi-regular basis. If Pierce can do what she did in '05, being careful and cunning (if necessary), her "crazy" ideas for '06 might not be so crazy after all. Pierce's big moment might be upon her as we live and breathe. She'll turn 31 in less than two weeks, and this is likely her final chance at such a run.

After coming up small in her two slam finals a year ago, there's still room for Pierce to improve. And her end-of-season slicing through the draws of her last four tournaments (she reached the final in all four, every one of them Tier I level events or higher) gives legitimate hope that she can turn those RU's into W's.

Of course, the odds are stacked against her being able to remain as healthy this season as she did through most of last year. As a result, the Australian Open might end up being her best shot at being fully healthy at a slam in 2006. At this point, Mary Pierce is all about the pride and the prejudice... and traversing the gap between "great" and "good" in a single bound.

Cross your fingers for her.

1.Pierce will get out of the starting gate well in '06, carrying over her success from the final six months of '05
2.She'll win another Tier I, plus three other titles
3.She won't make it to #1, but she'll break her previous career-high (#3 in '95) by climbing to #2
4.Pierce will reach another slam final and have a golden opportunity to salt away that important third title...
5. ...and the best shot for it to happen will be in Melbourne a few weeks from now. And that's just where it will come, too.

All for now.


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