Tut, tut. Just when women's tennis—the sport, not the tabloid parade of abusive fathers, violence and lost youth—verged on becoming interesting again, yet another episode pulled it back into the realm of the bizarre. Mary Pierce, whose run to the 1994 French Open final seemed to cement her independence from her intrusive and often abusive dad, abruptly withdrew from Wimbledon two days before the tournament, giving no other cause than the elliptical "reasons far beyond my control."
For a sport woefully lacking in star power, it was a bad turn. The uncertain status of absent divas Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati has left the game to the relentless Steffi Graf, who spent the last year threshing through the field of usual suspects with boring ease. Then came Pierce on June 1, beating Graf 6-2, 6-2 in the semis at Roland Garros. The women's side of Wimbledon suddenly held out a promise of drama, and we haven't had that since Seles was attacked in April 1993.
Now, with the eighth-ranked Pierce gone, we still don't. And at first glance it appears that two old bogeymen—her father and the demon media—are to blame. In the week leading up to Wimbledon, the Fleet Street brigade made clear that tennis's new star would be its prime target during the fortnight. There were pictures of Mary posing in tight clothing, and one article began, "She likes nothing better than wandering around the house naked." Some papers reported that Jim Pierce planned to disguise himself to circumvent the ban on his attending Mary's matches. Then there was the more menacing two-day spread on Father Dearest in The Sun, with Jim growling, "My daughter owes everything to me, and I want her back." Rumor had it that The Sun planned to pay Jim's expenses to go to England and begin Mary's nightmare all over again.
London's tabs can be as inaccurate as they are randy, of course, and Jim refuses to speak on the matter unless he is paid. The threat of such a circus would make any 19-year-old reconsider playing. But it's not quite that simple. A spokesperson for the All England Club confirmed that fear of Jim was not the only cause for Mary's withdrawal, saying, "It's a variety of reasons, including her father's behavior, the media, the fact that she's been under a lot of pressure generally."
And then there is this: Pierce is a weak player on grass, and she has never played Wimbledon. Even after her confidence-boosting run in Paris, where she lost to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, she voiced uncertainty about playing on such a fast surface. She tried to dip her toe in by playing a 21-and-under tournament last week at Eastbourne—and promptly had it bitten off. A 15-year-old Czech named Ludmila Varmuzova, ranked 638th in the world, stunned Pierce 6-4, 6-4.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," said tennis great Billie Jean King of Pierce's withdrawal, "and not being comfortable on grass is one of them."
And not being comfortable as the daughter of Jim is another.
Following an afternoon parade through the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 23, Pope John Paul II will say a mass at Camden Yards. An altar will be erected in centerfield, and the pontiff will prepare for the mass in the bullpen.