She washed that man right out of her hair: A year ago, Mary Pierce was a nervy tennis prodigy with a serious parent problem. Now she is the biggest hitter on the women's circuit. Alain Deflassieux reports

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Anyone who watched Mary Pierce yesterday in the women's final of the French Open tennis championships will hardly have recognised her game from her last visit to Roland Garros. A year ago she was bundled out of the competition in the quarter-finals by the 17-year-old American, Jennifer Capriati. Pierce, then 18 and playing on home ground, had once more failed to live up to the enormous expectations heaped upon her, and some began to wonder whether she would ever fully exploit the exceptional talent with which she was blessed.

That defeat in Paris came against a backdrop of personal anxiety and family drama. A few days earlier a dozen security guards had ejected her father from the tournament for punching a spectator who had dared to question his daughter's ability during a match. It was not the first time Jim Pierce's near-psychotic preoccupation with her had caused trouble at court-side.

His real name is Bobby Glenn Pearce, an ex-convict who adopted an alias after several brushes with prison (once for armed robbery) and mental hospitals between 1960 and 1985. After Mary turned professional in 1989, he became immediately infamous for his crude behaviour and fisticuffs with fans.

Following the incident at last year's French Open, and one week before Wimbledon, the Women's Tennis Association finally banned him from the circuit, hoping to end the arbitrary violence and the obscenity-laced tirades that he regularly spewed at Mary during and after matches. Last July a fight with Mary's bodyguard in a Rome hotel sealed the rift between the despotic father and the rest of his family.

Freed from the fear of losing - or rather of the punishment that was inevitably meted out with each defeat, Mary Pierce was at last able to look forward to life as a normal tennis professional. Much has happened along the way from last year's defeat at the hands of Capriati to her spectacular showing at Roland Garros these past two weeks. Those who had not seen Pierce since then have been staggered by the transformation. The highly-strung, sad young woman is now relaxed and sparkling on court.

Pierce's march to freedom began last September. After being swept aside by Steffi Graf in the quarter-finals of the US Open at Flushing Meadows, she decided to rejoin Nick Bollettieri's training camp at Bradenton in Florida. She had spent six weeks there two years earlier - before her father withdrew her, claiming that the most famous coach in the world had no feel for her game.

'It was without doubt the best decision Mary could have taken,' her mother, Yannick, says. 'Her brother, David, followed and now all three of us are installed in a house near Nick's camp, and it's our base.'

In the Florida sun Mary Pierce's family and professional environment gradually stabilised. For the first time in her life she seemed at ease with herself and discovered that she could work hard on court and still enjoy herself. Last December I visited Mary at Bradenton. Whether behind the wheel of her white Porsche, on court practising, or relaxing on her terrace in a bikini, I sensed that she was happy to be alive and impatient to show the tennis world that she had drawn a line under her past.

Mary did not, however, intend that turning her back on her past should also mean forgetting her father. Just before Christmas, she and David paid him a surprise visit to say that she forgave him for all the pain he had made her suffer, and that she now wished to rebuild her life without him.

She lost no time doing that on court. By last November she had shone in the Virginia Slims championships at Madison Square Gardens, New York, when she beat Gabriela Sabatini and Martina Navratilova, both top ten players. At Bradenton, Bollettieri took me through the training programme he had begun developing with the tall young woman who can strike the ball harder than anyone on the circuit.

'Stroke technique and clean contact with the ball are elements that Mary is mastering perfectly,' he said. 'The reason her game is limited at the moment stems from the poor quality of her footwork. You can try to hit a ball 50 different ways, but if you aren't perfectly positioned on the ball you won't get a result. The day when Mary can position herself, you will see what she is capable of doing. But she has a lot of work ahead of her.'

In fact, the season began fairly well but after tournaments in Australia Mary ducked out of competition to train for nearly a month. The aim was to hit the French Open at the peak of her form.

After playing three hard-court tournaments in the US, Mary embarked for Europe, where she believed the effort she had devoted so enthusiastically to her game was finally going to pay off. But defeats by Karina Habsudova in the second round in Rome, and by Julie Halard in Berlin, left her bewildered and confused. It took a long conversation with Bollettieri to restore her confidence.

'I had to be a bit tough with her,' he told me two weeks ago. 'I said: 'Listen, Mary, I don't want to upset you, but you've got to admit that you're not really the clearest thinker on the tennis court. You weren't born to be a great tactician. So forget tactics. You are lucky enough to be able to put exceptional power into your shots. You are capable of outflanking any player in the world with two strikes of your racket. So hit the ball, enjoy yourself, hit as hard as you want. With the physique you have you can do it.' '

And she did. The fretful, timid player of last year has been replaced by a young woman bubbling with life, uninhibited in her movements and at last living up to her potential by reaching her first Grand Slam final. Apart from the footwork - which she is mastering - the most extraordinary transformation has been psychological, as her mother confirms:

'Since last September Mary has succeeded in gradually affirming her personality. She has discovered how to laugh, to live, and to work enthusiastically. She no longer lets herself be subjected to pressure from her entourage and she's no longer afraid of the consequences of losing.

'You're now looking at another player. A player who has ambition, who knows her potential and doesn't have a complex. She treats each match as just another game and doesn't bother herself with the name and rank of her opponents.'

How will Mary Pierce fare at Wimbledon? As she is untested on grass, the first real guide will come with the traditional run-out at Eastbourne in two weeks' time. While the speed of Mary's rasping shots from the baseline could prove devastating, the low bounce will make greater demands on her mobility. Last year, seeded 13 but tipped to reach the final eight at Wimbledon, she withdrew on the eve of the fortnight because of 'flu'.

Just before the French Open, Mary declared: 'I am coming to Roland Garros to win. I don't see who can beat me apart from perhaps Steffi Graf.' Wrong on both counts. She blew Graf off the court in the semis, but succumbed in straight sets to the Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in yesterday's final. As the players embraced across the net after the match, Mary Pierce was smiling in defeat.

Alain Deflassieux is the tennis editor for the French sports newspaper 'L'Equipe'.

Translation by Rhys Williams.

(Photographs omitted)

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