13 Oct 2017

Pierce: 'I'm a learner at heart'

News Article

By Leigh Walsh

Photo: Ray GiubiloMary Pierce (FRA)

SOFIA, BULGARIA: The city of Sofia, which sits at the base of the Vitosha Mountain, has a motto: “grows, but does not age.”

It seems only apt then that the Bulgarian capital is hosting the latest edition of the ITF Worldwide Coaches Conference by BNP Paribas, where delegates from more than 90 nations have descended to learn from some of the sport’s deepest thinkers.

Innovation, integrity and investment dominate the topics, nestled under the umbrella of a simple message: never stand still.

Ever-present throughout the conference is a face familiar to all in attendance: Mary Pierce, a two-time Grand Slam singles champion and the proud owner of two Fed Cup by BNP Paribas crowns. While Pierce may have “accomplished her dreams” in tennis, she’s the first to admit that she’s an eternal student of the game she loves.

“Well, you know, I’m a learner at heart,” said Pierce during a brief respite from the countless selfie requests. “I loved school and as a tennis player I always wanted to learn something new every day. We can learn from everyone if we have our eyes and our ears open.

“I was very excited to listen to the other presentations and speakers,” she added. “That was one of my strengths as a player, I always felt and wanted and needed to learn something new.”

During her keynote speech, Pierce discussed some of the biggest takeaways from a playing career that spanned more than 17 years. After all, she had a front row seat to the evolution of the women’s game, overlapping with Martina Navratilova in her early years and Serena Williams in the latter.

One of the biggest changes in her time – in keeping with the theme of the week – has been the journey of the player. Pierce turned professional at 14 years old, just four years after she picked up a racket for the first time. That would be unheard of now, but that may not be a bad thing says the Frenchwoman.

“You do not see young phenom teenagers coming out on the tour and having amazing results as you did in my generation,” Pierce explained. “Due partly I believe to the changes in the rules the WTA has made. I think that’s a great change, for the health and wellbeing of the players.”

Pierce wasn’t only reflecting during her 45-minute slot on the main stage, but also looking ahead. She demonstrated drills, which emphasised the need for greater variety and better defence – or "offensive defence" as she coined it – in the women’s game.

“Tennis is simple, keep it simple,” she urged the coaches. “The all-court game is the game of the future. Work on variety, angles, slices, drop shots, changes of pace, coming in, serve and volley.

“It’s amazing to see how many different countries are represented [at this event],” she later added. “And my goal is to bring something that these coaches can take back and apply on courts with their players.”

There are many things we can learn from Mary Pierce, but three words sound loudest when listening to her: learning never ages.