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A Big Hit In Paris
Sally Jenkins
June 13, 1994
Spaniards won the singles titles, but France's favorite daughter, Mary Pierce, won the hearts of fans at the French Open
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June 13, 1994

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

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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 Sánchez 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 Sánchez 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.

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