TENNIS: Pierce bears burden of expectation

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The Independent Online


reports from Paris

Two images catch the eye en route to the French Open, which starts today. One is a wry poster of Yannick Noah, the home hero of 1983, sporting a blond wig and a headband, a la Bjorn Borg. The other is a Nike advertisement which covers the entire side of a building. The subject is not Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras, but Mary Pierce.

Imposing in monochrome of a reddish hue similar to the clay courts of Stade Roland Garros, Pierce dominates the Rue D'Auteuil. It is hoped that proud Mary will do the same in the women's singles and become the first French player to win the title since Francoise Durr in 1967.

The burden of expectation has grown since Pierce advanced to the final last year with a sensational straight sets win against Steffi Graf on a day when every hefty drive she made hit the target.

Though defeated in the final by Aranxta Sanchez Vicario, Pierce atoned by beating the Spaniard to win the Australian Open in January and arrives this time as a Grand Slam champion.

That is more than can be said for Graf, who does not have a major title to her name for the first time since winning her initial Grand Slam championship here as a 17-year-old in 1987. But at least Graf is here, which in itself is cause for rejoicing considering the problems she has had with her back of late.

After losing to the American, Lori McNeil, in the first round at Wimbledon and to Sanchez Vicario in the final of the United States Open, Graf missed the Australian Open because of the troublesome bone spur in her lower back.

The 25-year-old German's preparation for Paris has been devoid of European clay-court tournaments, but she pronounced herself none the worse for six weeks without competition. "I feel great," she said. "I practised really hard for the past nine days and I've had no problems at all. I think my time away from tennis helped me."

Seeded No 2 to Sanchez Vicario, Graf is projected to play Conchita Martinez, the Wimbledon champion, in the semi-finals. Martinez, who appeared to switch off for the remainder of last year after her triumph at the All- England Club, has emerged as a strong favourite here. The Spaniard is unbeaten on clay this season (19 matches) and has won four consecutive tournaments, culminating with a successful defence of the Italian Open title.

So where does Pierce figure in the equation? If all goes to plan, the third seed will face Sanchez Vicario in the semi-finals. Pierce could play the American, Lindsay Davenport, or the Japanese, Kimiko Date, in the quarter- finals, though Iva Majoli, a 17-year-old Croat, seeded No 12, may be a hurdle in the fourth round. Interestingly, the 14-year-old Martina Hingis is also in Pierce's quarter of the draw.

Nerves can play such an important part in major championships that Pierce may be vulnerable from the start, even though she is likely to experience a reassuring sense of deja vu at the sight of her first-round opponent, Nicole Bradtke.

Pierce defeated Bradtke for the loss of only one game in her opening match a year ago. Though the Australian had also lost her opening match in the previous two years, there was a good reason why she failed to make an impression on Pierce. Having married Mark Bradtke, the Australian Olympic basketball player, a month earlier, she was not well prepared for an important tournament.

"I know she will be confident," Bradtke said, "but the circumstances are different this year. I've been playing almost every week, and I've had some good wins." Surely Pierce will not go to the wall so soon.

n Stefan Edberg won his doubles and singles matches yesterday to help Sweden to a 2-1 win over Croatia in the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf. Edberg beat Sasa Hirszon 6-4, 6-1 and then teamed up with Jonas Bjorkman to beat Hirszon and Goran Ivanisevic 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.