Tennis: Pierce's journey round her father ends in French final: John Roberts reports from Paris on a young gun with sights fixed on a first major title

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The Independent Online
WHEN Monica Seles first held a racket, her cartoonist father, Karolj, drew Tom and Jerry on the balls. It is tempting to speculate that Mary Pierce has taken to sketching the face of her dreaded father, Jim, on the missiles while beefing up her forehand.

She has done no such thing. Intolerable though the violent ex- convict's behaviour towards his daughter has been, she is keen to maintain a relationship with him, albeit at a distance.

It seems reasonable to assume that Jim Pierce will be watching from afar, probably via television in Florida, when his 19-year-old daughter attempts to win the French Open singles title in today's final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. He has been banned from attending tournaments since his disruptive antics led to his being shown the door here a year ago.

'Pressure's not being a little blonde white girl playing tennis for dollars 30,000,' he once told the New York Times. 'Pressure's waking up on the roof of a building and having to go down and mug someone for a loaf of bread, which I've done.'

That rates fairly low in Jim Pierce's catalogue of misdemeanours, but while his point is rather chilling, it does put the playing of games in some kind of perspective, which in practice he was unable to do.

His daughter is playing for far more than dollars 30,000 today, and for far more than the dollars 525,000 ( pounds 356,000) first prize. Victory in her first Grand Slam final, particularly in her adopted country, would transcend anything that could be measured financially.

Pierce's astonishing straight- sets win against Steffi Graf in Thursday's semi-finals, the world No 1's first defeat in a Grand Slam championship since losing to Seles in the final of the 1993 Australian Open, demonstrated how much she has improved, psychologically as well as technically, in her father's absence.

'Last year was a difficult year for me,' she said. 'I made a big decision in my life and right now I feel very happy. I don't regret anything that I did or the decisions that I made, because I think it has all turned out for the best. Many things have changed, on the court and outside the court. My life has changed. Life is more fun now, and on the court it is more fun also.'

She is coming to terms with her personal identity and the confusion of her national identity. 'I have three passports,' she said. 'I was born in Montreal, in Canada, and I also have a French passport with my mother (Yannick), and my father is American. I feel very, very good here in France, but also I spend a lot of time in America training. I suppose I am half-and- half, but for the time being I am 100 per cent French.'

When not competing, Pierce is based at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Acadamy in Florida, which is famous for producing Andre Agassi and was home to Seles during her early years in the United States.

'I definitely think Nick has helped me a lot,' she said, emphasising that their rapport is as important as her work on the practice court with his staff coach, Sven Groeneveld. 'Nick has helped me in my tennis game, and I am also able to talk to him about other things. Mentally, I feel more calm. I take things less seriously.

'It is a year since I stopped working with my father anymore. I don't think it (her improvement) is because of that. I rather think it is because of Sven and Nick. We have been training a lot. When you feel good physically, you have a lot of confidence. Physically, I am very well. It is the first time I have been feeling that way every day.'

The initial signs of Pierce's progress came at the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden last November, when she finally began to defeat top-10 players: Gabriela Sabatini, followed by Martina Navratilova. She then lost to Sanchez Vicario, the world No 2, in the semi-finals.

'When I lost against Arantxa in three sets, I was a little tired,' Pierce recalled. 'Here I feel really good.' In March, she defeated the Spaniard for the first time in their four meetings in three sets on a clay court at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Though Pierce has conceded only 10 sets en route to the final, Graf wondered how well she will cope with Sanchez Vicario's scurrying style today. 'I think against Arantxa it will be more difficult, because the points are going to be longer,' she said. 'But if Mary plays like she did today, I think she has a very good chance to win.'

Sanchez Vicario has experience on her side, having beaten Graf to win the title as a 17-year-old in 1989 and has participated in three other Grand Slam finals.

Pierce will be guided by Groeneveld, who numbers among the Spaniard's previous coaches. 'Sven is going to give me good advice,' Pierce said. 'I know Arantxa is playing very well, but I am very confident. I am going to try to think that it is not a final.'

That may be difficult with the nation willing her to become the first female French champion in the open era as she steps on court in her shift frock and mini cycling shorts, endeavouring to redress the balance in women's tennis.

(Photograph omitted)

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