Even by tennis standards it was a dysfunctional relationship. For Mary Pierce, Roland Garros was the source of so much angst, so many bad memories. It all started when she was 13 and, by virtue of her mother's French provenance, came to the Paris tennis complex from Florida to train under the auspices of the French Tennis Federation. A stranger in a strange land, she mirthlessly bludgeoned tennis balls on the clay courts by day, then cried herself to sleep in a nearby dorm room by night. She left within a month. When she was 18, her famously obstreperous father, Jim, was ejected from the grounds during the 1993 French Open after he harassed fans and choked one of Mary's cousins. Jim was later banned from showing his face at women's tour venues. In the years that followed, time and again Mary was booed by the crowds at Roland Garros as she left the courts after desultory defeats. "For all sorts of reasons," she says, "it had always been difficult to play here."
Yet the place remained oddly alluring to her. She can't say why—maybe it was the stadium's mystique, maybe it was just the way the Parisian sun reflects off the red clay. "I'd been through so much [at Roland Garros], but I still looked forward to playing here," says Pierce, 25. "This place had become part of who I was. I always wanted to feel like I belonged here."
Last week she transformed Roland Garros into Chez Marie. Playing the best tennis of her life, the sixth-seeded Pierce won the French Open and gained the second Grand Slam singles title (the first was the 1995 Australian Open crown) of her dramatic and melodramatic career. She beat the tournament's third and first seeds, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis, in riveting three-set matches. Then Pierce subdued a nervous Conchita Mart�nez 6-2, 7-5 in Saturday's final to become the first, ahem, French women's champion at Roland Garros since Fran�oise Durr in 1967. "I have so many emotions," Pierce said after the final, "that I don't feel anything."
The French fans, whom Pierce had described before the tournament as "fickle," mounted her bandwagon in droves. TOUS AVEC MARY (All for Mary) shrieked a headline in the national sports daily, L'Equipe. More than half of all French households tuned in to her last two matches. Before the final Pierce received a note of encouragement from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and another from President Jacques Chirac conveying "a thousand bravos" and his hope that "all French people will be on your side."
Truth be told, Pierce may have a French passport, but she is scarcely more Gallic than the Juan Valdez coffee served at the Roland Garros food court. Her father is American. She was born in Montreal, grew up in Florida and can often be found at the suburban Cleveland—Cleveland!—home of her beau, Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar. Pierce has never resided in France for more than a few months, and her French is junior-year-abroad level. Midway through the tournament one cynical French journalist asked Pierce if she was the most American of the French players or merely the most French of the Americans. Awkwardly she replied, "A little of both."
Then again, it's easy to see why the French embraced her. For years one of tennis's heaviest hitters, Pierce has finally cultivated craft to complement her power. In Paris she won plenty of points with searing ground strokes, yet her most effective shot was a feathery, sharply angled forehand that she unspooled once she had her opponent pinned behind the baseline. "Mary is a killer who has so much power," said Hingis after winning the doubles with Pierce on Sunday, "but in this tournament she's played with more security and purpose."
Pierce, who has won two tournaments this year and risen to No. 3 in the rankings, attributes her improved play to a newfound spirituality. She says she was always a devout Catholic, but her faith has intensified of late. She ushered in the New Year at the home of Alomar's parents in Puerto Rico by lighting a candle and saying a prayer. She hasn't stopped praying since. "Too many good things have been happening in my life lately for it to be a coincidence," says Pierce. "I put everything in God's hands. I don't have any fears." Even on the tennis court Pierce wears an immense crucifix that she purchased with Alomar on a trip to the Dominican Republic.
The other cross she bears is her relationship with her father, who abused her verbally and, she has claimed, physically early in her career. (Jim has repeatedly denied physically abusing Mary.) They had a rapprochement of sorts in February when she asked him to come to her house, in Bradenton, Fla., and help her train. Mary won't discuss the relationship with reporters, but she thanked Jim in her winner's speech in Paris. On the other hand, she has yet to ask the WTA tour to relax the rule requiring Jim to submit a written notice before he attends a tournament. "She doesn't want to cut him off," says a source close to Mary, "but the relationship will be on her terms."
She has gained some stability from her relationship with Alomar, whom she met three years ago in Florida. "We clicked right away," says Pierce. They are often in separate time zones, but they speak on the phone daily and often watch each other compete. "We talk about the mental part of being a sports figure, what goes through her head," says Alomar, who spent much of his past off-season following Pierce on tour and even fills in as an occasional practice partner. "She beats me easy," he says, "but I can ace her."
Pierce's recent ascent also coincides with her having retained her 24-year-old brother, David, as a coach. On Feb. 25 David was teaching tennis at a club in London when Mary called and asked him to work with her. Three days later he was with her at a tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz. No glorified gofer, David takes his duties seriously. At the Indian Wells event in California in March, Mary won her first match 6-1, 6-3. David, though, was dissatisfied with her play and ordered her back on the court for a hitting session. "He may be the toughest coach I've ever had," said Mary in Paris, "but that's what I needed. What happened here is the result of hard work."