Some kids grow up in mansions – not Mary Pierce. She lived out of a ’79 white Cadillac that was missing a hubcap. And a lot more was missing. She got little help from the USTA and, at 13, all alone and not knowing French, she went to Paris. When she emerged there was no gala debut, no media frenzy and no pricey endorsements.
What she did have were big strokes, amazing inner strength and bruises from tennis’ most notorious “dad from Hell.” Her late father Jim was court-martialed by the Marines, was a convicted thief and diagnosed with schizophrenic and paranoidal tendencies. He did time in Sing Sing prison, Bellevue Mental Hospital and tried to escape from prison. At tournaments he’d yell, “Mary, kill the bitch!” He called a 12-year old “a piece of —-.” He threatened to kill Mary and slapped her around. No wonder she had a lost expression, a melancholy air, a skittish temperament and plenty of denial. She claimed her dad “does it for the best, you know.” She thought he would chill and let her be, but “It was the opposite…It was hell on earth…I hated my Dad – I was afraid of him. Crazy, crazy stuff.”
Simon Barnes reflected: “What an extraordinary creature Pierce is. Her every contradiction – and she has many – emanates an air not of mystery, but of inner confusion. Perhaps it comes from having a dad who praised her wildly one moment – ‘My daughter! A Goddess’ – and was down on her like a ton ten minutes later.”
Eventually, the WTA created “The Pierce Rule,” to rein in abusive parents, and Mary fired her dad as her coach. He bristled: “I’ll never rest until daddy’s little girl comes home to Daddy. She’s sleek and powerful and the best. I built the Ferrari and now I want the keys back.” Mary long refused to talk with her dad and was convinced she’d never forgive him. At 18, she hired bodyguards. Her dad attacked them. There were stalkings, stolen passports, choking, tears and restraining orders.
But little could restrain the gifted Mary. Working with new coaches, playing for France, winning titles and briefly becoming engaged to baseball all-star Roberto Alomar, she evolved. “I’m finally becoming Mary Pierce the player,” she noted. “It was always Mary Pierce and her father did this or Mary Pierce and her father did that. The true me is finally coming out.”
She would collect 18 titles, reach No. 3 and win the 1995 Aussie Open. In 2000, after becoming the first French women of the Open Era to prevail at Roland Garros, she gushed. “I have so many emotions that I don’t feel anything.”
Never mind Mary’s helter-skelter childhood – she turned pro at 14. And forget her tumultuous relationship with her adopted homeland. When she lost, Parisians booed and called her French-American. When she won, she was French and headlines read, “All for Mary.” She got a note from the Prime Minister and a street was named for her. Amazingly, through it all, Mary gained tranquility: “It’s called inner Pierce…I mean, inner peace,” joked Pam Shriver. On court, she was a power blaster. Yet, noted Jon Wertheim, “Her most effective shot was a feathery, sharply angled forehand that she unspooled once she had her opponent pinned behind the baseline.”
At the French Open, when she was sprinting far off court against Monica Seles, she improvised with a gazelle-like leap and hit a shot for the ages, a flicky, between-the-legs crosscourt lob winner. Mary had many a tic and twitch and seemed prim. Yet, she had a grand presence. Erect, a tad stiff, and vulnerable, she was an appealing yet reluctant swan who wasn’t entirely comfortable on stage.
But she relished her moments. At the 2005 French Open final, she said, “I just looked [up] at the scoreboard and…listened to the crowd cheering. I took a moment because this was going to make for good memories.” She lost terribly, but the deeply religious Mary, who grew up Catholic and had become a born-again Christian, told the throng, “The magic word is love. The power of love is amazing. The reason I’m standing here today is the love of God and the love of my family, my friends and everybody…”
Born in Montreal, she was an itinerant Floridian who seemed to find herself everywhere, from Cleveland to Paris. She was once asked what, for her, would be a happy ending. Not surprisingly, she spoke of stability and having “a home to go to.” Pierce eventually sought spiritual solace in the remote Indian Ocean island Mauritius where her heart, at last, felt at home.
She told ESPN, “One of the greatest miracles for me was to forgive my Dad and to love him.” Mary cared for him as he struggled with cancer. In 2017 her “dad from Hell” passed and let’s hope somehow he went to heaven. Meanwhile, back here on Earth, on July 20, tennis’ great survivor and the last French person to win the French Open singles title will be enshrined into the International Hall of Fame.