Tennis: Erratic Pierce exits as the home support turns to jeers

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THE atmosphere at the French Open was distinctly damp and chilly yesterday, especially on the No 1 Court named in honour of the great Suzanne Lenglen, where Mary Pierce was derided by her adoptive fellow citizens. Jeers and whistles accompanied the No 11 seed's departure in the second round after she had failed to capitalise on a 5-1 first set lead against Magu Serna, of Spain.

Feted after reaching the 1994 final at Roland Garros and winning the 1995 Australian Open title, the 23-year-old Pierce has grown accustomed to ambivalence.

"I'd say I get more support everywhere else in the world than here," said Pierce, who was born in Canada to a French mother and an American father, and raised in Florida. "If I win, I'm the French Mary Pierce, and if I lose I'm the French American. It's not new. It's not the first time and probably won't be the last time, either, whatever I do here. It's no big deal.''

Her popularity was not enhanced after she was dropped from the French Fed Cup team in April by the captain, Yannick Noah. Pierce telephoned Noah from her home in Florida to say that she would be arriving in Ghent the day before a tie with Belgium. Noah told her to stay in America if she was not prepared to travel for pre-match training with the other players.

Pierce, whose preparation for the tournament was hindered by a pulled thigh muscle, which caused her to retire in the second round of an event in Berlin a fortnight ago. She did not offer this as an excuse for yesterday's erratic performance in losing, 7-5, 6-2.

Her only previous meeting with Serna, a talented 19-year-old from Las Palmas, was in the third round at Wimbledon last year, Pierce winning in straight sets. "I guess Magu's best surface is clay," she said. I have to give her a lot of credit today. She played a great match. She made very few unforced errors.''

Asked if tension had caused her to lose seven games in a row after the first set had been within her grasp, Pierce said, "I don't think I can use any excuse there. It just means I can improve my game and she played a very good match.''

Pierce's nine appearances at the French Open have not been without incident. Her father, Jim, was banned by the Women's Tennis Association in 1993 after his disruptive behaviour at Roland Garros - and elsewhere on the tour. It was only recently that he was allowed to attend tournaments at which he was acting as a coach to a player.

As on Wednesday, rain-delays were a feature of the day's play. The 16- year-old Anna Kournikova advanced to the third round in Monica Seles's quarter of the draw, defeating Katarina Studenikova, of Slovakia, 6-2, 7-6, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario continued to look dangerous in the lower half of the draw, dispatching the Romanian Catalina Cristea, 6-2, 6-4.

Between the showers, the upsets continued in the men's singles. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the 1996 champion, seeded No 6 on this occasion, was eliminated in the second round by Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, 7-6, 7-6, 6-1. Enqvist, the world No 19, won the first set tie break, 12-10, the second set shoot-out, 7-4.

Thomas Muster, the 1995 champion, was in determined mood, giving a lesson in court craft to the promising young German, Nicolas Kiefer, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3. Asked if he enjoyed beating members of the new generation, the 30- year-old Austrian said, "Yes, especially when they tell you you're not fit enough to play anymore after one set, which is what happened in Dubai.''

Muster, who is among the clay-courters who will not be playing at Wimbledon this year, was asked, jokingly, if he would be prepared to coach the dejected Pete Sampras for next year's French Open. "I am still at the stage where I could beat him on clay, so I rather prefer that,'' he said. "He has the game. His problem is that everyone makes a big deal out of it because it is the only one he hasn't won.''