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Dave Scheiber
May 07, 1990
Mary Pierce, 15, is trying to fulfill her promise on the tennis tour and please an overbearing father
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May 07, 1990

Too Much, Too Young

Mary Pierce, 15, is trying to fulfill her promise on the tennis tour and please an overbearing father

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Shortly after Mary was born, in Montreal in 1975, the family moved to Hollywood, Fla. As a child Mary excelled in gymnastics and ballet. "And she always liked to play ball—any kind," Yannick says. When Mary began taking tennis lessons, her father also became interested in the game, soaking up every detail he could about technique and training. The more Mary excelled, the more he grew certain he wanted to commit himself to developing her promise. So he put her on his own weight-and-nutrition program and devised drills—in one he stood at net and slammed shots full-force at her in order to hone her reactions.

"Maybe I'm trying to live my youth now," he says. "I don't know. But we have a great time."

Officials of the USTA aren't so sure about that. They have become frustrated by Pierce's refusal to allow them to refine Mary's game. They flew her to Arlington, Va., for a USTA fitness test, and her performance drew comments like "the best we've seen yet!" for flexibility, and "superior" for her 57 situps in one minute—13 above the average. That only reinforced Pierce's opinion that he had trained her better than the USTA could have.

"We made a number of proposals and paid some expenses out of USTA funds for coaching, but in every case no one was able to work with Jim at all, because he insisted on being the boss," Woods says. "This guy has no clue."

Stan Smith, director of coaching for the USTA and a past Wimbledon champion, worked with Mary at a camp, but one that barred all parents. "He loves his daughter and he knows his daughter best, no argument about that," Smith says. "But I don't know if he knows how to win the big tournaments. We have coaches who can help Mary get the match experience she needs."

"I think Mary knows what's going on, and that has to be bothering her," adds Warwick. "But she can't get away from it. The father has to be man enough to step up and say, 'Hey, I've taken her as far as I can. Let's let some professionals take her into the next stage as a great player.' "

For now, Pierce is not likely to allow anyone else to tinker with Mary's career. He talks of moving the family to France, where they flew last Friday to visit Yannick's relatives and to prepare Mary for the French Open and Wimbledon; she must play the qualifying rounds at both tournaments. Says Pam Shriver, "I think what's happening is she's going to feel isolated because of some of the bridges being burned. At that age you want to build bridges. It's a real shame."

Too often Pierce directs his verbal barrages at Mary. Some coaches have seen him berate her after matches and are concerned. Others have only heard about the intensity of the rages. Says Pierce, "I've never gotten mad at Mary because she doesn't win. The only time I will ever get mad is if she doesn't give 100 percent."

On the night of April 10, during the Eckerd Tennis Open in Largo, Fla., the rage slowly emerged, as if from the dark corners of Jim Pierce's past. Mary, making her hometown pro debut, drew ovations from the packed crowd all evening for her solid doubles play with partner Luanne Spadea. For the first time spectators called out her name all match long. Mary and Spadea couldn't capitalize on that support, though, against Laura Gildemeister and Sandra Cecchini. The Pierce-Spadea duo lost 6-1, 3-6, 4-6. The turning point came when Mary and Spadea went ahead 40-love at 4-4 in the third set, only to lose the game.

As Mary walked from the court, new fans clustered around her for autographs. Pierce gave her a hug and then Mary met the media. She was relaxed, upbeat, talking about the biggest crowd she had ever played before. Thirty minutes later, Mary and her family walked through the empty parking lot toward the old Cadillac, planning to find a place to eat. Then Pierce's voice began to rise. He had latched onto the 40-love third-set lead like a pit bull and wouldn't let go.

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