The gruesome knee injury Mary Pierce suffered in Linz, Austria last Thursday could be as hard to overcome psychologically as it is physically.
For now, the two-time Grand Slam winner is saying brave things about returning. Pierce wants to represent France at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in what would be her fourth Olympic appearance. But she is facing surgery and rehabilitation that could leave her at less than full power for six months to a year, a dicey proposition for a player who will turn 32 in January and was able to play only 17 matches this season because of nagging foot problems.
The initial diagnosis of the dramatic late-match injury that resulted in Pierce being carried off the court on a stretcher was a ruptured knee ligament. She is scheduled to have further examinations to determine whether there is more than one ligament involved, and whether the tear is full or partial.
Surgery won't take place until the swelling in the joint subsides, probably in three weeks to a month, French Tennis Federation doctor Gilles Daubinet told French reporters.
Pierce admitted she'd never been in so much pain in her life.
"It's too bad, I was just beginning to play well again," she said, according to a story published in the French sports daily L'Equipe. "But there are worse things in life."
Pierce came into Linz ranked No. 29 and winless since August, having lost in the first round of her previous three events. Tendinitis in her right foot sidelined her from February to August after a somewhat unexpected comeback season in 2005. Pierce went 43-13 last year and was the runner-up in the French Open, the U.S. Open and the WTA year-end championships. She ended 2005 ranked fifth, her highest perch since 2000, the same year she overcame a longtime jinx and became the first Frenchwoman to win at Roland Garros since 1967.
No. 26 Ai Sugiyama of Japan gave Pierce trouble in the first round, but Pierce prevailed in two tiebreakers and moved on to face Russia's Vera Zvonareva.
Down a set, the 25th-ranked Zvonareva saved three match points and was serving with the advantage at 5-6. Pierce chased a ball to her forehand side and planted her left foot awkwardly after hitting the shot. Her left knee buckled inward and Pierce collapsed, letting out a bloodcurdling scream. She continued to moan, clutching the knee, her chest heaving. Zvonareva hurried over with a bag of ice, followed by the trainer and an emergency medical crew. She stayed on the fringes of the group attending to Pierce throughout, and gently draped towels over her and folded one to put under Pierce's head just before she was wheeled out.
Speculation began almost immediately as to whether this latest setback could end Pierce's career. She tried to put the kibosh on that the next day, telling L'Equipe, "I feel it's not the moment to stop, and as long as I feel that way, I'll give everything." Her brother and primary coach, David Pierce, was equally resolute, saying, "She'll play until her body can't go any more."
Pierce deserves to be taken seriously when she says she'll try to keep going. She has hauled herself back to the top a few times since she turned pro at 14 in 1989, and survived a traumatic, brutally public split with her father and one-time coach, Jim Pierce. But during her recovery period, she'll just be another DNP in the WTA's legions of them, and the fact that her 2006 season never got off the ground shows once again how fragile life at the top can be for over-30 players.
Zvonareva's compassionate and sportsmanlike behavior -- she was the second person to reach Pierce, arriving within 20 seconds -- couldn't help but call to mind the way Maria Sharapova responded to what was perhaps this season's second-worst-looking in-match injury. In March at the NASDAQ-100, Sharapova's opponent Tatiana Golovin severely sprained her ankle in the late going of their semifinal match. Sharapova turned her back, jogged and bounced a ball on her end of the court as the weeping Golovin writhed in pain and then received treatment where she had fallen. There's no written etiquette for this kind of situation, but it seems like one where common sense and sensitivity should prevail.
Speaking of Sharapova
She won her 16th straight match and third consecutive title in Linz without dropping a set and rose to No. 2 in the rankings. Her five titles tie her with Nadia Petrova and Justine Henin-Hardenne for the most titles this season.
For the first time since the women's tour established a season-ending singles championship in 1972, no American player will be in the draw. An all-European field of four Russians, two Belgians, one French player and one Swiss Miss will square off for the title.
Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters secured the last two spots in the championships in Madrid after Switzerland's Patty Schnyder was mathematically eliminated as a result of her semifinal loss in Linz. The injury-plagued Clijsters is coming off a two-month layoff this week in Hasselt, Belgium. Hingis' quarterfinal appearance in Zurich two weeks ago, the latest milestone in her inexorable march through the rankings after a premature three-year retirement, gave her the edge over the idle Clijsters for the seventh singles berth.
Do not adjust your screen; Sunday's line score from Madrid wasn't a misprint. That was world No. 1, the Swiss Big Cheese, Roger Federer beating seventh-ranked Fernando Gonzalez of Chile in a tournament final for the second straight week, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (3). Federer has now won four consecutive titles and 24 straight matches, only the fourth-best unbeaten streak of his career and still a good distance from last year's 35 in a row. "His form is great for tennis, but not so great for his opponents," Gonzalez commented. Thanks for playing our game, Fernando.
Men's year-ender update
Gonzalez is one of seven players still in contention for the three slots left in the field for Shanghai. Russia's Nikolay Davydenko became the fifth man to qualify over the weekend; Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus fell out of the running after a breakthrough year when an injury prompted him to withdraw from the last regular-season tournament, this week's Masters Series in Paris. Other top no-shows in Paris will be Federer (fatigue); David Nalbandian of Argentina, currently in the sixth slot, who cited stomach problems; and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who has a slight abdominal muscle tear.
James Blake, Tommy Robredo of Spain, Croatia's Mario Ancic, Germany's Tommy Haas and defending Paris champion Tomas Berdych remain in the hunt, although Haas and Berdych would have to win the event to qualify. Now that Federer's out, everyone has a chance.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.