Pierce still holding out hope for return to WTA circuit

PARIS -- Former French Open winner Mary Pierce, sidelined for 18 months since undergoing surgery for a ruptured knee ligament, said she's still holding out hope for a return to the WTA circuit.

Pierce, who is working as a commentator for French television at Roland Garros, conceded that time may be running out for her to achieve her original goal of being in shape to play in the Beijing Olympics this August. Her protected ranking of No. 27, where she stood the week after her injury in October 2006, would automatically qualify her for the French squad.

"It's tough to say," she told ESPN.com Sunday. "I haven't ruled it out yet. It's coming very quickly and it's very soon."

But on the upside, the 33-year-old Pierce said she's finally healthy after a rehabilitation period that proved much longer than she or the doctors expected. She said her recovery was slowed by edema (swelling and/or bruising) that developed within the bone.

"They said it would be about four to six months and it's been about a year and a half," Pierce said.

"Yes, I'm healthy, doing well, my knee is finally healed. I have a desire to come back and play again, so after the French Open, I'm going to start physical training, and if I'm able to get fit and strong, then I'll start hitting the ball and playing tennis again.

"If all goes well and my body reacts well, and I feel I have a good high level to compete amongst the best then I'll come back and play."

Pierce crumpled to the court in the late going of a match against Russia's Vera Zvonareva in Linz, Austria when her left knee buckled as she was chasing down a shot. She screamed in pain and had to be wheeled off on a gurney.

After having surgery in Vail, Colo., Pierce remained there for the next six months -- hobbling for three months on crutches specially equipped with spikes to provide traction in the ice and snow -- and liked the area so much she considered moving there. She then spent several months in London, returned to her home in Florida last December and came to France a few months ago.

Pierce said she misses "Running, jumping, sweating, being in the sun ... for quite a few months, I pondered what I should do and wasn't sure. Then it just finally became clear."

The half-French, half-American Pierce turned pro in 1989, won the Australian Open in 1995 and was a top-10 fixture through the 2000 season, when she became the first woman of French nationality to win at Roland Garros since 1967.

Her form slipped in subsequent years, but she made a comeback in 2005, when she reached the finals of the French Open, the U.S. Open and the WTA year-end championships and finished the year at No. 5.

"It doesn't feel like too long ago," she said.

"I definitely need clarity," Pierce said of her competitive limbo. "Sometimes things aren't clear right away. That's where you need to be patient and persevere and see where things lead. Hopefully, I should know soon. I'm either able to or I'm not. If I'm not, that's OK, at least I tried, I can go on to other things."

Her protected ranking expires in October.

Sunday, Pierce predicted Serbia's Ana Ivanovic would win the women's title. "I like her, and I like her game," Pierce said. "She made the finals here last year so she knows what it's kind of all about. She's gotten very fit over the last year or two and I think she's my favorite for the tournament."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.