Saturday, July 12
Pierce works hard to get game back

ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- She had been idling along through her third-round match against Lisa Raymond, but in the final game Mary Pierce's confidence took wings.

Mary Pierce
Mary Pierce defeated Lisa Raymond 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

At 15-all, there was a massive cross-court forehand, a pristine winner. And then at 30-15, a heavy ace down the middle that Raymond flailed at and missed by a foot. Match point was a serve of sublime spin that bounded untouched into the wall around Court 18.

Pierce, a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 winner Saturday, cranked her fist above her head and waggled it bolo style. This is her fourth trip to the round of 16 here, but the previous three could hardly have been more satisfying.

"I was just happy, relieved," Pierce said later. "I think it's a match for me that really meant a lot. It was very special in a sense that I fought really hard and played with my heart and, you know, I still feel that my game is there.

"I'm playing well, but I'm still not back to the level of where I want to be. It's more difficult to go out there and play matches not being in that level where I want to be. So all I really do is just use my mind a lot more."

Perspective, experience, acquired knowledge, a certain kind of inner peace. In retrospect, they are gifts. But they were dearly bought.

Pierce didn't pick up a racket for a period of seven months over 2001 and 2002. She couldn't walk without searing pain in her back and spent most of her time at home in Sarasota, Fla., watching television, working the computer, playing with her Chihuahuas, Gilbert and Ginger.

"Seven months is a long time," Pierce said. "I didn't really realize how long it was."

Pierce is only 28 now. Still, it seems like an eternity since she made her first big impression.

She was barely 20 when she won the Australian Open in 1995, but her crowning achievement came five years later when she won the 2000 French Open. It was a popular win for the woman who was born in Montreal, Canada, and claims French citizenship.

And then?

Well, nothing.

"Nothing seems to have happened since I won the French Open," Pierce said after her second-round match.

Nothing good, anyway.

She suffered through numerous injuries in her career, but a rotator-cuff affliction forced her to retire in the fourth round of the 2000 U.S. Open and then things really fell apart.

Five months later she retired again, this time with chronic tendonitis in both ankles playing doubles in Dubai. It was only February, but her season was over. Her aching back simply wouldn't allow it. Her ranking -- once No. 3 in the world -- plunged all the way down to No. 130.

And then, after that seven-month layoff, when the ankles and the back seemed to be under control, an abdominal strain ruined the winter of 2002. She managed to reach the quarterfinals of the French Open, but it was her best result of the season.

"It was very difficult," Pierce said. "There was a time when I didn't think I would be able to play again, especially when I had the problems with my back. I wasn't really able to do anything and while it was nice to spend more time at home, as an athlete you miss the sun and not being able to sweat through exercise.

"Imagine what it is like not being able to go to work every day.

"I didn't take my talent for granted. I just didn't realize how easy it was for me before. It seems harder now. Being motivated enough to get fit again was the hardest thing because of my age and how long I have been off the tour."

She came into Wimbledon with a less-than-stellar 9-9 record. She was erased in the first round at Berlin by Virginia Ruano Pascual and the first round of the French Open by Clarisa Fernandez. These are not the kind of players that Pierce lost to in her glory days. Somehow, on the grass carpets of the All England Club, she has slowly, increasingly and surely found her game.

Raymond, the No. 23 seed here, is a formidable player -- especially on grass. She had been to the round of 16 here five times, including a quarterfinal appearance in 2000. It took two hours and two minutes, but Pierce prevailed, finishing with that breathtaking flourish.

"Everything always happens for a reason, I say. I definitely would have preferred being healthy and being out there playing, but I didn't have the choice."

And to think that Pierce almost didn't play here at all.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.