Victory for Pierce would be unlikely twist in crazy tale

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The Independent Online

Of the thousands of words that tumbled from the lips of the 30-year-old Mary Pierce en route to the women's singles final at the French Open today, few observers would disagree with the statement: "We have seen some wild and crazy things happen on the court." It seemed to summarise the story of her life.

Of the thousands of words that tumbled from the lips of the 30-year-old Mary Pierce en route to the women's singles final at the French Open today, few observers would disagree with the statement: "We have seen some wild and crazy things happen on the court." It seemed to summarise the story of her life.

The consensus is that it will take something wild and crazy to happen if Pierce is to defeat Justine Henin-Hardenne. "On paper, she's supposed to win," acknowledged Pierce, who has learned the hard way how to deal with what is written on paper.

Her troublesome father, the American Jim Pierce, was once ejected here and banned from WTA tournaments. He also once caused her to withdraw from Wimbledon on the eve of the tournament when she heard he was on his way. And she still shudders at the memory of verbal abuse from her "home" crowd.

That was when she lost to Barbara Rittner, of Germany, in straight sets in the third round on Centre Court in 1996. "They whistled me and started cheering for her. I was like, 'Am I still in France? Where am I? This isn't Germany'."

Born in Montreal to a French mother, Yannick, Pierce was not readily accepted in Paris. The runner-up to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the 1994 French final, she won at the Australian Open in 1995 and was feted after winning the French title in 2000. Several years of injury problems were to follow, but now she is healthy and is reconciled with her father. As she says: "It's been a really interesting journey."

The 23-year-old Henin-Hardenne could say the same things about herself. She, too, has had family problems and, although she keeps in touch with her younger sister, Sarah, she remains estranged from her father, Jose. Word has it that she offers some financial assistance.

Henin-Hardenne was just 13 when her mother, Françoise, died. After winning the 2003 French Open, Henin-Hardenne expressed fond memories of visiting Roland Garros with her mother in 1992 and promising her that one day she would be the champion. Having broken through, Henin-Hardenne went on to win the US Open the following September and added the 2004 Australian Open to her collection before being beset by a viral illness and injuries.

"When I was not feeling well," she said, "I was worried for my tennis career, obviously. But I felt bad for the rest of my life as well. You have all sorts of doubts. Being in the final here again is a fantastic feeling because I had very bad moments of fear and problems."

Rain interrupted play yesterday, when the unseeded Mariano Puerta, of Argentina, advanced to the men's singles final. Puerta recovered from two sets to one down and retrieved a 2-4 deficit in the fifth set to defeat Nikolay Davydenko, of Russia, 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

The 18-year-old Andrew Murray's hopes of becoming Britain's first boys' finalist at the French Open since Buster Mottram in 1972 foundered when he lost to the 16-year-old Marin Cilic, of Croatia, in the semi-finals, 7-5, 6-3.

Murray, who opened the match brightly, served for the first set at 5-4 and lost eight of the next nine games. He also received a warning for racket abuse.

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