INTERVIEW: Mary Pierce joins Li Na, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Hall of Fame

INTERVIEW: Mary Pierce joins Li Na, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Hall of Fame

The International Tennis Hall of Fame, home to some of the sport's most iconic and interesting fashion, is making room for three new inductees.

MELBOURNE—If anything best demonstrates tennis’ international growth, it’s the trio of players who comprise the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s just-announced 2019 inductees.

Li Na was a product of the Chinese player development system, in time both rebel and catalyst, as she became the first Asian to earn a Grand Slam singles title when she won Roland Garros in 2011. Mary Pierce was born in Montreal, raised in Florida, played under the French flag and, in 2000, would blossom as the first French woman to win Roland Garros in 33 years. Yevgeny Kafelnikov’s 1996 victory at Roland Garros made him the first Russian to capture a singles major. 

“It’s a pleasure to congratulate Li Na, Mary Pierce and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and to welcome them into the International Tennis Hall of Fame,” stated Hall of Fame President Stan Smith. “They are three incredibly hard-working athletes who set and achieved goals at tennis’ highest levels. This is a well-deserved honor, and we look forward to celebrating them as Hall of Famers in Newport in July.”


Li Na: From Rebel to Late Bloomer

The original intention was that Li Na would follow in her father’s footsteps and become a badminton player. “After two years of training,” Li said in 2011, “the badminton coach told me that I was not made for badminton and that I should rather play tennis.” 

Once committed to tennis, Li made her way up the ranks, aided by such experiences as a Nike-sponsored ten-month training period at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy in Texas. By the end of 2000, at the age of 18, Li was ranked 134th in the world. Nothing at this point showed the possibility of a Hall of Fame career—nothing, that is, except a bubbling and eventually boiling expression of individualism within Li that had perhaps even been nurtured by tennis.

Tired of the tennis life at end of 2002, Li headed off to college to study journalism. A vital support member was the longstanding love of her life, Jiang Shan, a fellow tennis player also known as “Dennis” who also served as her coach. The two would marry in 2006.

Opting to return to the WTA in 2004, Li posted many fine results. Propelled by laser-sharp, flat groundstrokes, in 2006 she finished the year ranked 21. 

Parallel with this was her taking a stand with Chinese tennis authorities. The price of all the coaching and travel she’d received was steep. Officials collected 65 percent of her prize money. Li demanded this amount be drastically reduced, and won her case. By 2008, after the Beijing Olympics, that figure had dropped to eight percent. Not until the summer of 2012 was Li able to keep every dollar she earned.

Then, starting in 2010, the year she turned 28, Li entered the rich period of her career. At the Australian Open, she beat Venus Williams in the quarterfinals. A year later Down Under, she went one step further, fighting off a match point versus world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki before losing in the finals to Victoria Azarenka. Li’s run set the tennis world on fire—and dramatically raised the sport’s profile in China. 

In 2011, when she played the finals at Roland Garros, 116 million people in her native land were watching. Upon winning that title, Li went supernova, major deals with Mercedes and Nike only part of a massive endorsement portfolio. Her singles victory at the Australian Open in 2014 was the ninth and final title of her career.

Li also won many fans with her humor, kindly jokes often made at Dennis’ expense, such as chiding him for snoring. Most of all, she’d become that most endearing of stories: A late bloomer. 

“I’m incredibly honored to become a Hall of Famer," said Li. "I love tennis and am grateful for all the opportunity it has provided me. I have loved seeing the sport grow in China and I’m proud to be part of that history. To have my career and China’s growing tennis history be recognized at the International Tennis Hall of Fame is a great honor and I’m humbled and grateful. I look forward to the celebration in Newport this year and to becoming a Hall of Famer.”


Mary Pierce: Grit and Grace

While Li’s major struggles had been with government authorities, Mary Pierce's challenge was much closer. Pierce’s father, Jim, had been her coach, but also as brutal a tennis parent as the sport has ever seen. So harsh was Jim that in July 1993, Mary successfully filed for a restraining order. He was also banned by the WTA from attending her tournaments. 

With grit and grace, Pierce was able to overcome that severe challenge and become a champion. As a junior growing up in Florida, Pierce was part of an impressive American cohort group that included such superb players as Hall of Famers Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati.  

Amazingly, by the age of 14, in 1989 at Hilton Head, Pierce had turned pro. Two years later, in Palermo, she won her first of 18 WTA singles titles.

To witness Mary Pierce in full flight on a tennis court was breathtaking. Exceptionally powerful off both sides, Pierce could thoroughly control a match. She hit the global radar in a big way at the 1994 French Open. After reaching the semis of a major for the first time—losing just six games in her first four matches—the 19-year-old took on world No. 1 Stefanie Graf. In 77 minutes, Pierce vanquished Graf, 6-2, 6-2. It was a remarkable statement of power and poise. Though Pierce would lose the final to the plucky Arantxa Sanchez, 6-4, 6-4, her Roland Garros effort had signaled the world that a seriously dangerous contender had arrived.

Pierce took it one step further in January 1995. In Melbourne, she didn’t so much eliminate the field as obliterate it. In seven matches, Pierce not only didn’t lose a set, she only twice lost four games in a set. In the semis she beat the reigning Wimbledon champion, second-seeded Conchita Martinez, 6-3, 6-1. In the finals, she avenged the Roland Garros to Sanchez, 6-3, 6-2. 

But consistency was not Pierce’s strong suit.  She was in many ways akin to a baseball player who hits home runs but whose batting average is lower than you’d expect. Following that exceptional effort in Melbourne, Pierce played 19 Slams and only once made it to the semis, in 1997 losing the Australian Open final to 16-year-old Martina Hingis. Pierce’s most notable effort during that time was playing on France’s 1997 championship Fed Cup team.    

A major change happened for Pierce in the spring of 2000. Following a defeat that March in Indian Wells, Pierce felt desolate. But soon after, Pierce said, she “gave my life to Jesus and was born again . . . and things changed instantly.” 

Exceptionally tranquil, Pierce came to her next major, Roland Garros, and once again caught fire. Two matches in particular showed her improved poise, a pair of three-set wins over Monica Seles and Hingis. In the finals, Pierce beat Martinez. She also that year won the doubles title with Hingis.

Alas, Pierce’s streakiness continued. In 2001, a back injury kept her off the tour for most of the year. By the end of the year, her ranking had plummeted to No. 130. 

But in 2005, the year she turned 30, Pierce had three incredible efforts. Seeded 21st at Roland Garros, she beat four seeds, including No. 1 Davenport, to reach the finals. At summer’s end, Pierce again beat a quartet of seeds and made it to the finals. And at the WTA season-ending championships, Pierce repeated that feat, her victims four top tenners.

It had been a rollercoaster career of challenges on and off the court. But it had also been extremely successful.

“To be recognized alongside some of the most accomplished, inspiring people in our sport is a huge
honor," said Pierce. "It’s humbling and gratifying, and I’m thrilled to become part of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.”

Yevgeny Kafelnikov: Singular singles and doubles star

At his best, through 1,215 singles and 571 doubles matches, this was a man of exceptional sturdiness and skill. Yevgeny Kafelnikov would earn 26 singles and 27 doubles titles—most notably taking both at Roland Garros in 1996, the last time any man has attained that dual triumph. Based on how tennis is played these days, it’s not a feat not likely to be matched again.

Like many East European tennis players, Kafelnikov had an athletic pedigree, a quality arguably less about genetics and more related to discipline.

Right from the start of his career, Kafelnikov impressed. Witnessing his movement and crisp, all-court game while Kafelnikov was still in his teens, Hall of Famer Pancho Segura said, “Look at this Russian kid hit the ball and take it to his opponents. He can do everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day he was number one the world.”

And indeed, very quickly, Kafelnikov made a mark. At the age of 19, in the first round of the 1994 Australian Open, Kafelnikov pushed world No. 1 Pete Sampras to the limit, barely losing that match, 9-7 in the fifth. A year later, in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, Kafelnikov upset world No. 1 Andre Agassi. And then, in 1996, again at Roland Garros, Kafelnikov reached the pinnacle. Thoroughly fit and in command, he raced through the draw, dropping only one set and in the last two rounds taking out Sampras and another Hall of Famer, Michael Stich. Kafelnikov had become the first Russian to win a Grand Slam singles title. 

While once upon a time top players frequently played singles and doubles, this had become an aberration in Kafelnikov’s era. But not for him. Partnered in Paris that year alongside Daniel Vacek, the Kafelnikov-Vacek duo won the title without the loss of a set.   

Nearly three years after that win, well-established as a top ten mainstay, Kafelnikov won the 1999 Australian Open, in his post-finals speech also thanking Sampras—a player he only beat twice in 13 matches—for not playing the tournament that year. Several months later, Kafelnikov was ranked No. 1 in the world.         

But as much as Kafelnikov excelled around the world, he took his game to another level when matters of his homeland were in play. To say he was a Davis Cup stalwart was an understatement. Kafelnikov played 72 Davis Cup matches (31-16 in singles, 13-12 in doubles), leading his team to the title in 2002. In 2000, at the Sydney Olympics, he won the gold medal in the singles event. And at the Kremlin Cup, the ATP event played in Moscow, he took the title five consecutive times from 1997-2001.

“I’m very honored to become a Hall of Famer and to represent Russia among tennis’ greatest champions,” said Kafelnikov.


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