By 9 A.M. ON Easter Sunday the front parking lot at Shoney's Inn restaurant in Tampa was filling with carloads of families, all dressed in their holiday best. Around back was a white '79 Cadillac with a missing hubcap and a trunk filled with one family's troubles and dreams.
Upstairs, in a room at the inn, Jim Pierce, a tanned man of 54, peered through the magnifying glass on his jeweler's visor as he set the tension on a racket-stringing machine. "Gotta get it just right each time," he said.
In the adjoining room 15-year-old Mary Pierce sat quietly in a chair by the TV as her mother, Yannick, brushed and braided Mary's long blonde hair. Off in the corner by himself, her brother David, 14, killed time by reading the morning paper. "Easter. You know, it doesn't even seem like a holiday," the mother said. "When you're on the road so much, all the days run together."
The days had blurred into a 10-month mission for the Pierces, who have piled into that old Caddy and rolled along tennis's back roads from hotel to hotel, tournament to tournament—running on the high-octane potential of Mary's burgeoning career and her father's relentless drive to coach her to stardom.
The Pierces still consider the Tampa-St. Petersburg area home, but they have no house. Four years ago they sold their $200,000 house north of Clearwater in order to devote everything to Mary's tennis. This was only two years after she had taken her first lesson and about the time she rocketed to the No. 2 national ranking in girls' 12-and-unders. In 1985 she worked with the legendary Harry Hopman in Bardmoor, Fla., the first stop on a road map that became cluttered with confrontations between the father and the tennis establishment over how best to develop his daughter.
Pierce, in fact, gradually alienated the United States Tennis Association, which had offered coaching as well as limited financial backing to Mary. Last July he gave up looking for a permanent training base and defiantly hit the highway with his family and the white Maltese terrier he cuddles like a baby.
While Pierce is clearly in the driver's seat, the passenger with the greatest burden is Mary. Since she turned pro in April 1989, her tournament earnings, roughly $18,000, coupled with money from Yannick's mother in France, have kept the Pierces rolling. In essence the family is riding the promise of a young player many tennis authorities say has the talent to become a top performer on the women's tour. They point to her precociously powerful 5'10", 120-pound physique and her attacking style. "The barometer we usually use is Top 20 in the world, and I think there is no question that she's got that potential," says Ron Woods, director of Player Development for the USTA.
"She hits the ball as well as Jennifer Capriati," says Kim Warwick—once ranked as high as No. 22 on the men's tour—who has worked with Mary.
But look again. Mary represents the flip side of the Capriati story. Unlike Jennifer, who in March made a heralded pro debut at 13 in Boca Raton, Fla., Mary received no media coverage in her pro debut last year, at the Family Circle Magazine Cup in Hilton Head, S.C. Hardly anyone noticed that at 14 years, two months, she was at the time the youngest American (pre-Capriati) to turn pro. Capriati signed a $4 million endorsement contract before her first tournament; Pierce has yet to land an endorsement deal. But she's out there, plugging away as the 186th-ranked player on the tour. Unrecognized, but not unnoticed.
"If you ask me who are the promising children, I would have to put her down as one," says Billie Jean King. "And yet, here she is walking around and nobody knows who she is."