Tennis: Paris power play for Pierce

John Roberts anticipates a show of strength from the world's women players at next week's French Open
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The Independent Online
MAX DECUGIS, a founding father of French tennis who lived to the age of 97, remembered an early national women's doubles final played at Puteaux, an island site in the Seine near Paris. After an interminable match of high lobbing, the score reached 5-5 in the third set, at which point one of the players made her excuses and left. "My carriage is here," she announced. "My new consort awaits me at Maxims. In the name of Love I renounce my claim to the title."

As the late Ted Tinling, court couturier and chef de protocol, observed when recounting the anecdote in his autobiography, Sixty Years in Tennis: "Ironically, the names of the team that won by virtue of this passionate default are immortalised in gold leaf on today's French honour-roll, with prestige identical to such household names as Lenglen, Wills, Navratilova and Evert."

There may be times when the players of today wish they could arrange similar escapes. But riches have made the game too serious for that, which is why some of the women compete like Popeye and Bluto and several look more substantial than Olive Oyle.

When the French Open starts on Monday, few players are likely to attract more attention than two of the home prospects, Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce. Mauresmo, 19, is exceptionally gifted, strongly built, and frankly gay; phrases which call to mind Martina Navratilova, one of the sport's greats, if not the greatest.

Pierce, 24, tall and sturdy, was born in Montreal, Canada, and spent a good deal of time in the United States until her father, the controversial Jim Pierce, decided that her career would be better served by adopting the French nationality of her mother, Yannick. Jim Pierce was the first member of the family to make an impact at the French Open, however, incurring a ban from attending all WTA Tour events after his disruptive behaviour at Stade Roland Garros.

In January, Mauresmo, unseeded, advanced to the singles final at the Australian Open. Although defeated by Martina Hingis, the precocious Swiss world No 1, Mauresmo had begun to confirm the potential seen in 1996, when she became the world junior champion, having won the girls' singles titles at the French Open and Wimbledon. While in Australia, Mauresmo declared her lesbianism and spoke of her relationship with Sylvie Bourdon, 31, the daughter of a bar owner in St Tropez.

While Mauresmo accepted Lindsay Davenport's apology for saying that she played like a man in their semi-final, the American explaining that she was referring only to the power of her opponent's shot-making (the towering Davenport worked hard on her own physique pior to winning last year's United States Open), the Frenchwoman dismissed as "stupid" Hingis' comment that Mauresmo was "half a man" because she had a girlfriend.

Softly spoken and articulate, Mauresmo appears to have won the French supporters over, although some would prefer that she and her partner spoke less about their sexuality and more about tennis. Students of Mauresmo's play will be looking for tell-tale signs of confidence, or the lack of it: whether she moves aggressively into the potent forehand and the versatile one-handed backhand, or leans back on the shots with uncertainty.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Mauresmo says. "It's the French Grand Slam and is very important for French players. It's true I'm expected to do good things, but I don't want to put too much expectation on myself."

Mary Pierce reached the final at the French Open in 1994, after a devastating performance in defeating Steffi Graf in the semi-finals, and started 1995 by winning her first Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open.

Cameras may not lie, but they sometimes exaggerate. Recent press photographs of Pierce, taken a fraction after the juddering impact of racket and ball from a two-handed backhand, endowed the French No 1 with biceps and triceps a body-builder would die for. Pierce, who is regarded as one of the glamorous players, was shocked by the apparent distortion, although the publishers of OK! magazine happily went ahead with a pre-Wimbledon photo-shoot.

Having taken a reasonably close look at Pierce during the Italian Open, where she defeated Mauresmo in the semi-finals and lost in the final to Venus Williams, the older of the imposing American teenagers, your correspondent is able to relay little to suggest she is capable of tearing Rome telephone directories in half with her bare hands. As was the case the previous week at the German Open, where a strained back did not help her cause in losing to Venus Williams in the final, Pierce was hampered by an injury in Italy, this time to the groin.

Word that Pierce takes creatine, however, prompted a response by the WTA Tour: "There have been recent reports that Mary Pierce has used a natural supplement as part of her training regimen. The substance, creatine, is not a banned substance under the Tour's anti-doping programme. A certain amount of confusion regarding creatine has been created by athletes in other sports who have combined creatine with a substance that is banned under the Tour's anti-doping programme (such as Androstenedione or 19- Norandrostenedione), but not in certain other sports.

"It is worth noting that Mary has consistently been a Top 10 player since the early 1990s and, except for a brief period when she was sidelined by a shoulder injury, has held that top-level ranking throughout. She is also an athlete who has epitomised the strength of the game of women's tennis and has worked very hard to maintain her stature both on and off the court."

Pierce's fraught formative years appear to have turned her into a philosopher. "The older you get, they say, the smarter you get. I don't have expectations of anything in life. I take things as they come, working hard every single day, doing what I need to, trying to have fun and to take care of my health, and everything else takes care of itself."

While acknowledging that Venus Williams is the player in form - "she's playing very powerful tennis" - Pierce does not view the American as the favourite going into Paris. "I don't think it's right to put anybody No 1 favourite," she says. "We have so many girls playing great tennis right now."

Power is not an entirely new in women's tennis. The American Althea Gibson was overwhelming in the late 1950s; the Australian Margaret (Big Marge) Court amassed a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, including all four majors in a calendar year (1970); the graceful Hana Mandlikova made muscle- man gestures behind Navratilova's back at Wimbledon; Steffi Graf dominated with speed and a mighty forehand. And there was a time when Gabriela Sabatini's shoulders would have done justice to a quarterback. Pity about the powder- puff serve.