Tennis: Pierce glad to be back: Owen Slot reports from Frankfurt on a fresh start for a troubled woman

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FOR contrasting reasons, Conchita Martinez and Mary Pierce have been the star attractions at the Federation Cup for the past six days. While interest in the Spaniard here owes much to the Championship- winning tennis she played at Wimbledon, it is for not playing at Wimbledon at all that the French woman has excited attention.

The withdrawal of the 19- year-old Pierce on the eve of the Wimbledon tournament has never fully been explained. She left Britain citing 'reasons beyond my control', most of which aroused speculation concerning harassment from her father, an ex-convict and Pierce's former coach, who is now banned from the tennis circuit. However, subsequent rumours, fuelled by Billie-Jean King, suggested that Pierce pulled out because she had a tough draw and did not have the strength of character to compete at the All England Club.

Unfortunately, those looking for answers to this mystery who came to the Federation Cup - a 32-nation knock-out tournament and Pierce's first competitive tennis since her Wimbledon vanishing act - went away disappointed. 'Why did you pull out?' and 'Where did you go?' have been the most insistent questions all week. 'I cannot say,' was the response.

The only clue is in Pierce's suggestion of excessive media pressure. Francoise Durr, a French star of the the early Seventies and the Federation Cup captain in Frankfurt, believes it was a combination of many factors, but says that even she is not privy to such matters.

'There are two subjects I just don't talk about with Mary: her father and Wimbledon,' Durr said last week. 'I'm not going to ask her. If she wants to talk about it, I will. A couple of times, I've asked if she wants me to accompany her to an interview because I didn't want anybody to ask difficult questions, but she has said: 'No, I can handle it myself. I'm not afraid of the past. It's something I have to deal with.' ' Her way of dealing with it is simply not to talk about it. She says, maybe naively, that she wants people to focus on her life on court, not off it.

Those closest to her have remarked at how relaxed she appears here. 'There is a big difference with Mary now,' Durr explained, 'because she is enjoying her tennis. I asked her why and she said, 'I'm not forced to play now.' She now plays when she wants to. Previously, it was thought that she could do only one thing, which was to hit the ball hard. Now she can do so much more with it and she enjoys it.'

In practice with Natalie Tauziat and Julie Halard, her Federation Cup team-mates, Pierce's happy demeanour is in striking contrast to her troubled past. Last year she failed to attend pre-Cup training and was kicked off the team, and this year Halard and Tauziat threatened not to play when Pierce was offered a FF200,000 ( pounds 24,000) bonus after reaching the French Open final. But because Pierce has not received the money, the matter has been forgotten and she herself now expounds on the sense of unity. 'The team spirit here is great,' she said. 'Everyone is having fun.' As Halard pointed out, 'It was never a question of personalities.'

The air cleared, Frankfurt has caught Pierce in an upbeat mood. In the company of her compatriots, she is without her constant companions on the circuit, her mother and Sven Groeneveld, her coach. With her entourage, she is prone to egocentricity - 'Diva Pierce' she has been called - but here she is happy simply to be one of the girls. 'We all talk about fashion and about movies or men, or whatever,' Durr said. 'Mary can be funny and tell jokes. The shy one is Julie; Mary joins in and has a good time.'

This was clear on Friday morning, before the quarter-

final matches, when Pierce joined Martinez, Arantxa

Sanchez Vicario and others on a star panel to pull names out of a hat for the 1995 Cup draw. Natalia Zvereva, the Belarussian player, was given the gameshow bimbo job of putting the countries' names on to the board that contained the draw, and she camped it up to such effect that Pierce, who was already giggling, faintly embarrassed at her own role, was in stitches, crying out for the entertainment to end.

Two hours later, Pierce was sitting beside the court with her team, cheering Halard successfully through a three-setter against Katerina Maleeva, the first of France's Bulgarian opposition. Next up was Pierce herself, against Magdalena Maleeva, and two facets of her game became apparent: her hallmark, phenomenally powerful groundstrokes, and that smile again which graced every lucky point, every tough point she won and every tough point she lost. As Durr said, here was a player enjoying herself.

Her pleasure ended soon after she had won the first set - she found no answer to Maleeva's frequent drop-shots, her own game lost its rhythm and she had to receive treatment for a stomach complaint. Away on one of the show courts, Martinez tied up her match against Nyoko Sawamatsu of Japan, but Pierce struggled, looking increasingly to the sidelines for encouragement from her team-mates. And having lost the second match point, the 2hr 36min epic over, she shot them another glance which begged apology for letting them down.

It was no matter, for Halard and Tauziat then won the deciding doubles rubber. By its third set, Pierce had finished her warm-down physiotherapy and was back at courtside, whooping and clapping and doing her bit for the team again. And when France's final winner was hit, no one was quicker than she to offer congratulations and exchange high-fives.

For the thrilling conclusion to this match, some 300 people had packed the grassy verges surrounding the court. The spectacle deserved more, but attendances averaged only 3,200 for the first five days, largely because of the absence of the home favourite, Steffi Graf. She had pulled out citing tiredness, though it has since transpired that her father, who also works as her agent, had arranged for her to play in an exhibition in New Jersey. Another case of a tennis dad firmly holding the reins - but Pierce, it would seem, has got all that behind her.

(Photograph omitted)