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A Big Hit In Paris

Spaniards won the singles titles, but France's favorite daughter, Mary Pierce, won the hearts of fans at the French Open

There is no getting around it: The French Open is usually not very French. The last Frenchman to win the tournament was Yannick Noah, in 1983, and the last Frenchwoman to do so was Franchise Durr, in 1967. This year, however, was different. Well, sort of.

While three of the singles finalists were Spaniards, the fourth, 19-year-old Mary Pierce, though she has three passports and lives in Florida, was born in Montreal to a French mother and is a naturalized French citizen. That was more than enough for the French to claim her as their own.

For two weeks Pierce inspired the crowds of 14,000 in Stade Roland Garros with her powerful play, provoking them to jubilant chants of Mah-ree, Mah-ree. She lost only six games in her first five matches and then stunned top-ranked Steffi Graf in the semifinals 6-2, 6-2.

Her 6-4, 6-4 loss to Arantxa Sànchez Vicario in the women's final was disappointing to the French fans, but they had a new heroine, capable of one day winning their national championship and many other Grand Slam tournaments. As for Pierce, the beloved daughter of France, she would no longer be known as the abused daughter of Jim Pierce. She was, finally, just a tennis player—a very good tennis player.

"I'm finally becoming Mary Pierce the player," she said last week after reaching the first Grand Slam final of her career. "It was always Mary Pierce and her father did this or Mary Pierce and her father did that. Now it's just Mary Pierce. The true me is finally coming out."

Over the last 12 months Mary has gone from a battered victim—who obtained restraining orders and bodyguards to keep her father away—to a self-possessed young woman. She distanced herself at long last from Jim, who had served as her coach from the time she took up tennis at age 10 until she fired him following a series of ugly incidents at the 1993 French Open.

At Roland Garros last year Jim was ejected from the grounds after an outburst during one of Mary's matches. The day before he had attempted to choke one of Mary's cousins during another match. Also, one tour official saw bruises on Mary's arm, and she later claimed that her father had caused them. On June 17 Jim was banned from all tour events.

Free of her father's oppressive presence, Mary began to do what she had been unable to do before: beat top players. Under the tutelage of her new coach, Nick Bollettieri, Pierce ended a 19-match winless streak against Top 10 opponents when she beat Gabriela Sabatini and Martina Navratilova at the Virginia Slims Championships in New York City last November. In April she added a full-time traveling coach, Sven Groeneveld, who left Sànchez Vicario to take the job. It so happens that both Bollettieri and Groeneveld had worked with Mary previously, only to be forced out by Jim when he decided that they wielded too much influence over his daughter.

Even with Bollettieri's and Groeneveld's help, Pierce still had not put her game together completely. She lost in the round of 16 in Rome and Berlin in the weeks preceding the French Open. On the Friday before she was to begin play in Paris, Pierce had a long talk with Bollettieri. Whatever his shortcomings, the flamboyant Bollettieri knows how to handle a big hitter. Under his guidance, Andre Agassi won the 1992 Wimbledon title and Monica Seles became No. 1 in the world. Bollettieri's advice to Pierce was elementary: "Don't think, dear, just hit."

In some ways Bollettieri's counsel was not unlike what Jim Pierce's had been. It was Jim's philosophy that Mary should hit every ball absolutely as hard as she could. He succeeded in developing a player who stroked the ball as if with her fists. "She owes her father a debt," Bollettieri says.

Bollettieri, however, thought that Mary had been getting tangled up in strategy in recent months, hanging behind the baseline and waiting out points instead of taking the ball on the rise and driving it. "You might get mad at me for saying this, dear," Bollettieri told her that Friday, "but you aren't too bright on the court. You might even be unintelligent. So let's just get up to the baseline and whack the——out of every ball."

And that is what Pierce did during the French fortnight. She moved into the semifinals without dropping more than two games in any match, and her total of 10 games lost through the semis was the lowest of the Open era.

Whether it was her success on the court that led to her relaxed attitude off it, or the other way around, Pierce seemed remarkably carefree in Paris. She skipped between points, laughing after she made an error. She dined in the cafès of Montmartre with relatives—her mother, Yannick; her brother, David; an aunt; and some cousins. She made regular visits to a H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üagen-Dazs on the Champs Elysèe. "I'm calm," she said. "I'm so happy. Of course, I'm glad I'm winning, but it's not like it means everything. I'm healthy. Everything in my life is good."

Jim followed Mary's progress in Paris from his home in Delray Beach, Fla., where he sometimes gives lessons at the Macci International Tennis Academy. Mary pays Jim's rent and provides him with spending money, and the two had something of a rapprochement around Christmas, when Mary and David surprised Jim with a visit. But Jim and Mary have not spoken since March.

Reached by telephone last Friday, Jim at first asked to be paid for an interview and then said, "She's only doing what I always told her to do." When interviewed by NBC, Jim, after again demanding to be paid, took a stab at Bollettieri, saying, "He's driving my Ferrari."

Bollettieri's strategy for Mary's match against Graf was for Pierce to attack Graf's strength, the forehand, in an attempt to unnerve her. Graf had been playing unsteadily throughout the tournament, even dropping a set to 76th-ranked Joannette Kruger of South Africa. The night before the semifinal, Bollettieri got a call from one of his other pupils, Boris Becker. "Tell Mary that she will be nervous," said Becker, "but that Graf will be very, very nervous."

Pierce seemed not at all unnerved at the prospect of playing Graf, who had beaten her both times they had played. "Oh, god, I'd just die if I won this," a giggling Pierce said the day before the semis.

In the match the Roland Garros crowd was treated to the rare spectacle of Graf's getting outslammed. How often does someone belt more winners than Graf? Pierce did, 17 to 10, completely demoralizing the defending champion, who made 27 unforced errors. "I don't know what I could have done about it," Graf said. "What tactic can you have when she puts away every point?"

Her training had served her well, but the one part of the game that Pierce could not train for was dealing with pressure. That proved to be her undoing against Sànchez Vicario. On Saturday, while waiting for the rain to stop, Pierce and Sanchez Vicario languished from 2 p.m. until 6:34 p.m. before they took the court. Then they completed only three games before play was postponed again. As they left the court, Pierce was up 2-1 with a break point.

When they returned at noon on Sunday, Pierce was edgy and tight. Although she broke serve to take a 3-1 lead, Sànchez Vicario broke right back. Not even the imploring cries from the stands could soothe Pierce. In the second set she fought back from a 3-1 deficit to even it at 3-3 but then fell behind 5-3 before firing a crosscourt backhand just wide on match point. Sànchez Vicario shrieked and Hung her racket into the air to polite but disappointed applause.

Pierce's blithe spirit had deserted her during the final; she sprayed 51 unforced errors around the court. "I was so nervous," she said, I kept telling myself, When are you going to have another chance? I didn't want to let it slip away. I wasn't as calm as on the other days. I was too serious. I thought about it too much."

It would have been unfair to expect more from Pierce. She had never won so much as a quarterfinal match in a Grand Slam event before last week. The second-ranked Sànchez Vicario, who won the 1989 French title at age 17, was appearing in her fifth Grand Slam final. Sànchez Vicario was a dogged, steady opponent who countered Pierce's blistering pace with spinning bloopers.

Sànchez Vicario's victory ensured that Spain would sweep the singles titles. The men's finalists were Alberto Berasategui, an unseeded 20-year-old Basque from Bilbao with a contorted grip who uses the same face of the racket to hit both forehands and backhands, and 23-year-old Sergi Bruguera of Barcelona, the defending champion.

Top-ranked Pete Sampras's bid to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time was stopped cold in the quarters by Jim Courier, who beat him in four sets. Courier played his best match in 10 months—which is how long it had been since the two-time French champion and former No. 1 had won a tournament. Courier's victory over Sampras was only partly restorative, however, because Bruguera dispatched him in four sets.

The presence of three Spaniards among the four finalists was cause for celebration in Spain and drew King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia into the VIP section on Sunday. The men turned their match into a siesta, though, as Bruguera, with his relentless topspin, used the ball as a hypnotist's tool to beat Berasategui 6-3, 7-5, 2-6, 6-1.

For the French—and for all but the Spanish, truth be told—the men's final was anticlimactic. Even with the loss to Sànchez Vicario, Pierce's ascension to the heights of the game is welcome. The women's tour has suffered from a string of lurid misfortunes, including the stabbing of Soles by a deranged fan in Germany last year and, only three weeks ago, the arrest of Jennifer Capriati for possession of marijuana. Even Graf said of the discovery of a potential rival, "It's healthy and exciting, but it's difficult for me to say that."

The best thing about Pierce may be that she appeals to so many nationalities. Though she was born in Montreal, she grew up in Florida. She currently rents a condominium in Bradenton, Fla., at Bollettieri's tennis academy, where she is finishing high school via correspondence courses and looking to buy a house. In 1990, after the USTA had washed its hands of the Pierces because of Jim's misbehavior, the family moved to France and, by virtue of Yannick's citizenship, Mary was able to receive funding and coaching from the French Tennis Federation. Mary carries Canadian, U.S. and French passports. Sometimes she thinks in French, sometimes in English. "I don't see why I have to be either French or American," she said last week. "I feel like a little of both."

But judging by the warm roar as she lifted the runner-up plate over her head on Sunday, for the last two weeks in Paris she was thoroughly French.



Sànchez Vicario (above) celebrated after winning a final in which her counterpunching kept Pierce off-balance.



[See caption above.]



In the semifinals the usually invincible Graf had no answer for Pierce's overwhelming power.



With her troublesome father kept at bay, Pierce could finally focus on being just a tennis player.