Mary queen of shots

Australian Open: Impressive Pierce overpowers Sanchez Vicario to secure her first Grand Slam victory
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The little white dress is back in the winner's circle after all these years, and the big-bashing babe with the split-nationality personality may be putting a new face on tennis.

Mary is a grand old name, as the lyric goes, and Mary Caroline Pierce is now the only woman with a shot at a 1995 Grand Slam. That became possible yesterday as she dulled the stingers of the favoured Barcelona bumblebee, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-3 6-2

to win the Australian Open, the first of the year's four majors that constitute the Slam. The last woman to achieve the Grand Slam, Steffi Graf, who won it in 1988, failed to defend her Australian title because of injury and in the process lost her No1 ranking.

Even though she was beaten badly (though not quite so badly as last year when Graf pasted her 6-0 6-2), Sanchez Vicario has moved up one place in the rankings to No1 in the world. Thus sayeth the Women's Tennis Association computer.

But the newly fashioned champ Pierce - "I'm just learning how to really play tennis after being a hit-hit-hit type for so long" - has allure as well as muscle. The game's beleaguered female tribe can only hope that the 20-year-old Franco-Canadian blonde is the real thing, combining femininity with force.

It is difficult to recall one compelling match in the women's tournament, so impressive was Mary's march through the midgets. She lost no sets, and only 26 games over the seven-match distance. Her "closest call" came in a third-round gale: 6-3 6-3 over the only player ever known to have come from Madagascar, Dally Randriantefy. The Wimbledon and French champions, Conchita Martinez (who was beaten 6-3

6-1) and Sanchez Vicario had no play against her.

"The fourth game was very big," said Sanchez Vicario, who, for the first time in memory, made more unforced errors than her opponent: 30 to 21. The struggle of the afternoon was encapsulated in those points. There were five deuces and Sanchez Vicario lost to make the score 2-2, despite holding two game points. "I served badly, and Mary took advantage of me. But if I had held on there and made it 3-1, I think it could have been different."

But Pierce walloped backhand then forehand winners to break back. She was to lose only three more games as the Spaniard's forehand crumbled uncharacteristically under heavy shelling.

The French national coach, Francoise Durr, the last female of her country to win a major title (the French in 1967), applauds, "Mary has opened the door. She has the confidence now. Her future seems limitless."

Her father, whose obsessive dedication to her tennis career has brought about a certain estrangement, was scarcely less enthusiastic. "Yeh, I watched on TV," he said from the United States last night. "It was great, exactly as I thought it would be. She dominated Arantxa. I saw Mary just before the Virginia Slims championships last November and I started to tell her why she lost to Arantxa in the French final.

"She said: `Daddy, you're not supposed to talk to me about tennis,' but I did anyway and I could see today that she listened. I told her not to go cross-court too much with the forehand, cross-court and then down the line. She did it.

"You know," he said, "I was looking through my things and found a little notebook I started keeping on Mary when she was 10. Inside the cover it says: `She will be No 1. She will dominate.' I feel pretty good about that. She hasn't called me yet, but I hope she will.

"If you see her, tell her congratulations from me - and I love her."

Jean Paul Lot, an executive of the French Federation, recalled meeting Mary and her father nine years ago in Paris. "Jim Pierce was hard-up and came to us for funds to keep Mary going. He complained that the United States Tennis Association wouldn't helphim, even though they were backing Jennifer Capriati.

"Since her mother is French, we gave them aid. But Jim did the coaching. That should be remembered. He is a rough character, but he got her up there, to No 12, 13. Without him she wouldn't have this title today."

Today she is No 3, a career best, behind Sanchez Vicario and Graf. She fears neither, having crushed Steffi in their last two meetings.

Jim Pierce, who was keenly feeling the teenage intra- Florida rivalry of his kid and Capriati at the time, once made another long-range prediction that would also come true: "Some day my Mary will outdistance Jennifer."

Ironically both Jennifer and Mary are estranged from their once inspirational fathers, leading candidates among many for the presidency of the Bad Dad Club, although it seems that the Pierce relationship is being repaired to some extent.

Pierce's single-minded dream for his daughter to be a champion finally took on solid form at Flinders Park yesterday. But, impaired by a restraining order, he could do no more than scream encouragement at a TV screen in Delray, Florida.