Pierce sees new signs of affection

Alan Page reports from Paris on the homecoming of a Grand Slam winner
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Mary Pierce's first Grand Slam victory at last month's Australian Open has propelled her to No 3 in the world rankings and made her the draw card, along with Steffi Graf, at this week's Paris Open. At 20, she has arrived. Whether she has come home is not so clear.

Homecomings are subtle affairs if you hold three passports - American, Canadian and French - and your mastery of the language of Moliere remains incomplete. Sports stars are not noted for verbal fluency but a foreign accent still stands out.

A year ago, Pierce's French was as shaky as her on-court tactical sense. They have both shown marked progress but there is still room for improvement. If you cannot talk back on a TV talk show you are a non-starter, but her advisers have clearly decided to meet the issue head-on. On a Canal Plus programme last week Pierce made her entry in a big American convertible and then implored Antoine de Caunes, "Just remember to slow your questions down a bit for me".

"Is this young lady French or not?" De Caunes queried. "Is she Mary Pierce or Marie Peeairse?" He then concluded: "She is elegant. She is bright. She's got to be French."

The French can be culturally unforgiving but they have always been alert to chances of imported glory. They've been annexing artistes for years and granting them the honorary citizenship accorded to high talent. Who worried about Picasso's accent and passport when he was admitted into the modern French Pantheon?

And after all, Pierce's mother, Yannick, is of Parisian stock - her family lived in the southern suburbs - and the player herself - she was born in Montreal and brought up in the States - has now committed to her third nationality. What began as a tactical option for the Pierces has become Mary's personal choice.

She hopes to increase the two or three months a year she spends here and is looking for a two-bedroomed flat within easy reach of Roland Garros. Since her appearance in last year's French Open final she has begun speaking French at home.

It is part of the making-over of Mary Pierce, just like the nimbler footwork and new thoughtfulness on court. Her father, Jim Pierce, was notoriously hard on his American daughter and so spectacularly obstreperous in general that he is now banned from the women's tour. Now she is free to be as tough on herself, the new French self, as she wants. Given her background, the phrase "adopted country" must have special meaning for Pierce.

Her almost ceremonious sense of style helps her fit in. The French were slow to accept this exponent of female power-plays, on court or off, but Pierce's combination of explosive shots and languorous manner won them over. Between points, she has the proud posture and slow strut of a Bluebell Girl. You can imagine ostrich plumes feathering skyward from her headband. A lot of the Bluebell troupe are imports, too.

But Pierce refuses to play the clothes horse or show too much relish for the spotlight. Beyond admitting she prefers to wear a silky Greek tunic while giving her opponents short shrift, Pierce claims fashion does not interest her and feels any talk of stardom is premature. When told certain newspapers had christened her "The Body" she said, "You're kidding." Then, cautiously, she admitted it was all "very flattering".

The boost Pierce has given French tennis was needed and partly explains that, over here, relief mingled with the victory celebrations. In recent years the men have provided France with some success, through Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte, but the women have failed to match that.

For several years French rankings were headed by Nathalie Tauziat, whose powder-puff game and self-effacing nature belonged to the wooden racket era. In 1967 that splendid technical eccentric, Francoise Durr, became the last Frenchwoman to claim a major title before Pierce.

At the risk of irritating her standard-bearing successor, Durr feels it is Pierce's American genes they have to thank. "That's where the killer instinct came from," Durr says, a slightly worrying notion given the context.

The federation may be happy now, but they were initially reluctant when the Pierce family made their overtures, fearing that taking Jim Pierce on board would constitute a bad case of excess baggage. But Philippe Chatrier insisted. He believed in the intense, bespectacled 15-year-old with the indiscriminate hitting power, even if she was then locked into a complicated family scenario.

Five years on, now retired, Chatrier can draw quiet satisfaction from the result. Mary Pierce has rewritten that particular script. She has arrived. More importantly, she is rapidly making herself at home.