Mary Pierce was to be the No 13 seed at Wimbledon, and many experts believed the 18-year-old American's crushing groundstrokes and fierce competitiveness could have powered her into the quarter-finals. But on the eve of the fortnight she withdrew, on the grounds that she had flu. Perhaps this is just as well, however, given the feverish problems she has been caused by her father.
Jim Pierce had punched a male friend of Mary's at the French Open in late May. Two days later, 10 security guards ejected him from her third-round match for shouting. In a hearing the week before Wimbledon, the Women's Tennis Council voted to ban him from all remaining events on the 1993 women's tour. A first in the history of the sport, the ban - officials hoped - would put an end to the obscenity-laced tirades that Pierce regularly spews at Mary during and after her matches.
Some observers wondered why it had taken the tour so long to restrain Pierce, who, soon after Mary turned professional in 1989, became infamous for his crude behaviour and fisticuffs with fans. There is every indication that it took a plea from Mary to spur action from the Women's Tennis Association (WTA). When Pierce was ejected at the French Open match, a security official on court said: 'The request came from the family.' She has since replaced Jim as her coach, hiring Pierre Barthes, a Frenchman, and has offered her father money to invest in a Florida business.
But there is no indication that Jim is ready to stay away. The banning was only the latest twist in a sad family saga that features a gifted girl tormented not by an emotionally disturbed fan, but by her own father - a former convict who has carved a ragged path through the pristine, image- conscious world of women's tennis.
TWO months after 10-year-old Mary Pierce took her first lesson at a public Florida tennis court, she played and beat another little girl - one who happened to be the 20th ranked 10- year-old in the state. 'When I did that my dad got excited and decided to make me practise more,' Mary says.
As Mary made a name for herself in junior tournaments, her father earned a different reputation. At one event, he accosted a 12-year-old competitor in the parking lot after she had ousted Mary in the first round. Lisa Moerner, now 19, still remembers Pierce's tirade. 'He said like, 'You're a fucking, shitty scumbag and you're never gonna amount to anything' and 'You only beat my daughter because you got lucky. You're a piece of shit'. And then he came toward me like he was going to hit me, and I took off. I went to the tennis desk and cried.'
After receiving several letters of grievance, the Florida Tennis Association swiftly banned Pierce from its junior tournaments for six months. 'Everybody was so glad to see him leave the juniors,' says Sally Moerner, Lisa's mother. 'Everyone thought, 'When he gets in the pros he'll be taken care of'.'
But Pierce, also Mary's coach, continued his vulgar, often violent sideshow on to the women's tour with virtual impunity. He ranted, raved and swore through her matches, shouting invective at anyone within earshot - but most often at his own daughter. After she lost at the 1992 Italian Open, he berated her in their hotel room later that night.
'I heard him yelling at her for 15 minutes, and he was still going when I left,' said a tournament official, who was in the hall at the time and who requested anonymity. 'Every other word was 'fuck'. It was sick.'
The abuse was not only emotional. In Ladies of the Court, a behind-the- scenes book by Michael Mewshaw, several players say they saw Pierce throw a racket bag at Mary, hitting her on the leg, after she lost a 1991 tournament in Italy. Admitting this to Mewshaw, Pierce said he then 'tried to slap her. But I caught the corner of her glasses and knocked them off'. Although Pierce said he hadn't hurt Mary, she withdrew from the following week's tournament.
Tour officials showed extraordinary tolerance for Pierce's abuses. They never fined him, ejected him from the stands or banned him from a tournament, even after he slugged two spectators in the 1992 French Open. Meanwhile, they accommodated him with access to the players' lounges and box seats, locker rooms, practice courts and courtesy cars.
Although several players, tournament directors and journalists complained to the WTA, Gerard Smith, its executive director, continued to maintain that the problem was a family matter.
'Mary and her mother, if they wanted to, could take the appropriate steps to ensure that he isn't on site when she's playing,' he said. 'I'm not trying to put it back on Mary as her responsiblility, but I don't think it's appropriate for us to say, 'I'm sorry, Mary, we're not giving your father a guest pass'.'
Many people on the tour held a genuine fondness for the burly Pierce, who draped himself in gold rings, watches and chains. Nick Bollettieri, a former coach of Mary's, said: 'I enjoy talking to Jim Pierce, other than the tennis. He seems very kind. He's nice to children going by. He's warm. But when it comes to tennis, I don't feel it's the same person. It's like it's two different people.'
Not long after Bollettieri made that remark, the tennis world was stunned to learn that Pierce was a different person. A reporter for The New York Times discovered that Jim Pierce is in fact Bobby Glenn Pearce, an ex-convict who adopted an alias after several brushes with the law between 1960 and 1985.
A convicted felon who had committed armed robbery, Pierce had been shot in the back fleeing arrest, had escaped from a work-release programme and then done time in three state prisons. He spent nearly four-and-a-half years in confinement. But he passed a good part of his sentences in public mental hospitals. At one court hearing, the judge said: 'The institutional physician says the defendant has been in Bellevue (a New York mental hospital) for observation many times, and finds that the defendant has schizophrenic and paranoid tendencies and he recommends Bellevue.' After the hearing, Pierce was returned to Bellevue for three weeks.
He was committed to a different mental hospital in 1963, while serving time in Central Prison, North Carolina. He was under observation for 180 days on the recommendation of the prison's medical director, who, according to court records, believed him to be 'mentally disordered' and 'a fit subject for admission into a hospital for the mentally disordered'.
After his release in 1964, he spent 10 years as a wanderer. In December 1973 he was arrested on a charge of possession of stolen property in Florida. He jumped bail and fled to Canada to join Yannick Adjadj, a Frenchwoman he had met in Florida who was studying in Montreal. They married, and Mary was born there in 1975.
A son, David, was born in 1976 and eventually they all moved to a Florida trailer park. A person who knew the family and gave them baby food and nappies recalled that they were poor, scraping together a living by selling jewellery on the flea-market circuit. Still wanted by the police, Bobby Glenn Pearce began going by the name Jim Pierce.
'Pressure's not being a little blonde white girl playing tennis for dollars 30,000,' Pierce said when the New York Times reporter asked about his past. 'Pressure's waking up on the roof of a building (in New York) and having to go down and mug someone for a loaf of bread, which I've done. I did what I had to do to survive. When I was young nobody helped me. I vowed that wouldn't happen to my kids.'
Pierce grew increasingly agitated when asked about a charge that he stole 1,200lb of marijuana from a Miami drugs ring in 1978. He denied it, then told the reporter: 'I'm not threatening you, and I never want to hear that I threatened you, but I'll be 56 in January. I don't have nothing left. When I go I want everybody to go with me. You have no idea how my mind works. Anything could happen.'
When WTA director Smith learnt of these remarks in November, and of the pending New York Times article, he quickly changed his hands-off stance. Within 48 hours he pushed a new rule through the Women's Tennis Council. Known as 'the Jim Pierce rule', it empowers the tour to fine or ban any member of a player's entourage guilty of disruptive behaviour. It was this rule the council invoked when it banned Pierce.
But while Seles' tormentor sits in a German jail, Mary's tormentor continues intruding into her life with patriarchal passion. 'When my kids are 40, I'd still like them to live with me,' Pierce has said. That must be a disturbing thought for Mary, and an equally troubling notion to other players on the tour. 'We're very concerned,' Smith said. 'We'll offer her all the support and comfort we can.'
Wherever she is now, whatever she does next, she'll need help. But for the moment, the daughter who rose like a blonde phoenix from the ashes of her father's life has disappeared, and Wimbledon is the poorer as a result.
Cindy Hahn is the sports editor of the 'Prague Post'.
'Ladies of the Court' is published this month by Little, Brown, pounds 15.99.
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