Erratic Pierce loses interest

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The Independent Online
She is called "The Body", but Mary Pierce's problem seems to be in keeping it together with her soul while on court. Yesterday, at the Direct Line Insurance championships here, the 21-year-old produced a performance of dazzling inconsistency in losing 6-0, 5-7, 6-2 to Irina Spirlea.

Playing on grass for the first time in a year, Pierce, the ninth seed, certainly looked the part, but sadly only in as much as she was wearing a white version of the low-cut dress that had briefly raised temperatures at Roland Garros.

Here it seemed difficult to detect a pulse. Always one to blow either hot or cold, Pierce was positively frozen out of the first set, winning just five points as her 22-year-old opponent from Romania, ranked No 17 in the world, gratefully accepted error after error while simultaneously exposing Pierce's relative lack of manoeuvrability.

When Spirlea held to lead 2-0 in the second set - Pierce had by now managed a total of seven points - even the crowd was becoming embarrassed.

Suddenly, after 27 minutes of torpor, a deep breath replaced the distracted sighs and four points exploded from her racket in less than a minute. The spell was broken and so too, at 2-3, was Spirlea.

Pierce's strength is her power and gradually her shots began to find their targets. Her trademark, slow, elegant stroll between points was even upped a gear (to first). And taking advantage of a Spirlea double- fault that set up the opportunity, she claimed the second set with an exquisite wrong-footing cross-court forehand pass.

It was at this point that interest again seemed to drain out of Pierce. She dropped serve in the opening game of the deciding set, then again at 1-3, subsiding with a double-fault, and Spirlea was not unduly troubled in serving out the match.

Surprisingly, given her record on grass - Pierce has won only one match, at Wimbledon last year - she remains optimistic.

"Grass is really fun," she said afterwards. "It could be good for my game. I can take advantage of the first shot and once I get used to moving around I can get better. But don't expect me to play great on it for a couple of years."

Despite the late withdrawal of Steffi Graf, the Wimbledon champion, seven of the world's top 10 are at Eastbourne this week with Monica Seles, the No 1 seed, opening her campaign today against Meredith McGrath, the winner at Edgbaston last week.

Because of the strength of the field, Clare Wood, ranked 187 in the world and a wild card, was the only Briton in the draw. Yesterday, she displayed her versatility against the world No 27, Ai Sugiyama of Japan, saving one match point with an ace, a second with a drop shot and a third with a powerful forehand. However, a netted backhand on her fourth match point gave Sugiyama a 6-4, 6-3 victory. It was Wood's 10th successive first- round defeat at Eastbourne and she has yet to win a set.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 11

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