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Capriati, of course, quickly impressed most observers with her knack for thriving under pressure. People who have worked with Mary believe the stress is taking its toll. "I think she is under tremendous pressure to do well," says Warwick. "Tremendous pressure to perform for her father."
Mary says no, that she loves what she is doing and that if her father is hard on her at times, well, he only wants her to give 100%. "He's right," she says sweetly, softly. "He does it all for the best, you know. I know that. Other people look at him and say, 'My god.' But I understand."
Few others do. Pierce's controversial ways are, in fact, legend.
He admits to having been punched in the jaw by the father of one of Mary's opponents during a juniors match in an argument over the quality of the officiating (he retaliated by knocking the man to the ground with one swat of a meaty hand); to having had a cup of soda flung in his face by the mother of another of Mary's opponents after he announced to his daughter, "You should have beat the bitch!"; and to having yelled from the stands at the 1987 Orange Bowl juniors championships, "Mary, kill the bitch," which prompted Mary to throw her racket in his direction.
Last August, at a satellite tournament in York, Pa., on the eve of Mary's first pro tournament victory, Pierce took her out at night to an empty K Mart parking lot and hit balls to her in the rain. "I'd rather be with my kids than have a pusher sticking needles in their arms," he says defiantly. "I like being with my children. We don't go anywhere—anywhere—without them. And it's been that way all their lives."
Away from competitions, Pierce can be a different person. He has a country-boy charm and candor. Friends talk of his warmth and generosity. "Jim and I were golfing buddies," says former next-door-neighbor John H. Williams III. "He once made me a ball marker with a diamond in it and my initials, too—and he didn't owe me a dime!"
Pierce's favorite piece of jewelry is the $14,000 gold Rolex that he wears on his wrist. He can talk up a storm about it: "I love it, you know. My father used to say, when somebody died, 'And he didn't even have a good watch!' So maybe that stuck in the back of my mind."
Pierce remembers his father, who ran a small grocery store, for more than his philosophy about watches. He recalls a bitter relationship. "I carried an ass-whipping with me to school every day," Pierce says. "I promised that my children would never be beat. I don't want anybody to do anything to them, period."
At age 15, with only an eighth-grade education, Pierce says, he dropped out of school and ran away. He says he spent four years in the Marines and eventually wound up in Miami Beach, taking whatever small jobs he could find in construction or lifeguarding. His life changed 17 years ago on Miami Beach when he met Yannick, a native of France and about a dozen years his junior, who was on a Christmas break from studying for her doctorate in linguistics at the University of Montreal. One week after she returned to Montreal, he showed up at her door. He persuaded her not to move back to France after getting her degree. A year later, they were married.
"I wasted my life until my wife and I got married," he says. "I was just a knock-around beach bum."