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Persona Non Grata
Sally Jenkins
August 23, 1993
Because of his abuse of his daughter, Mary, Jim Pierce isn't welcome on the tour
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August 23, 1993

Persona Non Grata

Because of his abuse of his daughter, Mary, Jim Pierce isn't welcome on the tour

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Mary Pierce's new best friend, Theo, goes everywhere with her. You can see him, standing a step or two behind her, as she signs autographs. Or you may spot him as he stolidly watches one of her practice sessions, a white towel draped around his sweating neck. There he is again, watching her from the box seats during a match. Mary is never out of Theo's company. Theo is this week's bodyguard.

What's wrong with this picture? By all rights, Pierce, 18 years old and ranked No. 14 in the world, should be looking forward to a happy and successful future on the tennis court. Instead she has had to hire a revolving cast of bodyguards, check into hotels under assumed names and file two restraining orders—all to protect herself from an abusive and dangerous pursuer: her father, 57-year-old Jim Pierce.

Ever since Mary turned pro in 1989, at the age of 14, she has been known as much for her father's abusive behavior toward her and her opponents as she has for her tennis talent. This June she finally fired her father from his position as her coach. That coincided with the decision by Mary's mother, Yannick, 43, to divorce Jim, after nearly 20 years together.

Mary now acknowledges what everyone in the tennis world has long suspected: that Jim has hit her regularly. Moreover, Mary, her 17-year-old brother, David, and Yannick say that Jim—a convicted felon who, while incarcerated, spent time in a psychiatric prison ward—frightens them. In tiling for a restraining order against him in New Jersey Superior Court on July 20 before she played in an event in Mahwah, Mary asked for protection, declaring that Jim had made "terroristic threats" and "threatened [her] life." She also stated that Jim had told her, "If you think there was a nut in Waco, Texas, you haven't seen anything yet."

Mary recites the extraordinary circumstances of her life in a detached manner, as if it had all happened to somebody else. Whatever may be broken or hurt, she keeps hidden. Her face rarely changes expression, even when she discusses the last time her father left bruises on her. "You never know what he's capable of," says Mary. "One reason I hesitated to break away was that you just don't know what he might do."

Mary's bid for independence from her father has been aided by the Women's Tennis Council (WTC), the governing body of the women's circuit. On June 17 the council barred Jim from attending any more events on the 1993 tour because of his violent behavior in May at the French Open. At every tournament Mary enters, head shots of Jim are circulated among the guards and posted at ticket booths, with instructions to deny him entry. The week after Mahwah, Mary got a restraining order in San Diego, where she played a tournament, and she plans to get another one in New York City to ensure that Jim stays away from her during the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 30.

Mary is a lithe, strong young woman, 5'11" and 130 pounds, with the hardest strokes on the women's circuit, according to no less an authority than No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf. Mary has a quick, sardonic wit and is tough-minded. Many people are convinced that without Jim, she can crack the Top 10. Despite the tense circumstances and the constant presence of bodyguards, Mary and her mother and brother are visibly relieved to be separated from Jim, who's now living at the family condo in Delray Beach, Fla. Last month, for the first time in her life, Mary had a say in who would be her coach. She picked Angel Gimenez, who used to coach sixth-ranked Gabriela Sabatini. In San Diego she went to her first rock concert, staying to listen to Aerosmith until nearly midnight. She also went Boogie boarding for the first time. She reached the quarterfinals of the tournament before losing to Graf. "It's like a weight is off me," says Mary. "When I miss a shot, it's not the end of the world anymore."

Mary doesn't think her father intends to let her go. Following Jim's ejection from the French Open, she wrote him a letter asking for her freedom. She wrote the letter because, she says, "whenever I try to talk to him it doesn't end well."

Jim read the letter in front of Mary and told her that he understood. Then he proceeded to follow Mary, Yannick and David through France and Italy, seemingly stalking them. In Corsica, says Yannick, Jim took their passports from her purse at the airport, and she had to call the police to retrieve them. In Palermo he lurked outside a tournament entrance on the day that Mary played the final. Nervous and angry, she lost to 54th-ranked Czech Radka Bobkova and blamed the loss on her father's presence.

The next day Jim followed the family to a hotel in Latina, Italy, where he attacked Mary's bodyguard at the time, Michel, in the hallway outside her hotel room while Mary cowered behind a locked bathroom door. The brawl ended with the arrival of the police. Jim, who sustained a gash in his left arm, claimed that Michel, who was cut across the forehead, had stabbed him. Mary, David and Yannick say that Jim was the one with the knife. Since that incident Jim has stayed in Delray Beach. But the WTC remains on alert, and so do the Pierces.

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