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The drama queen takes a bow

John Roberts reflects on the growing maturity of Mary Pierce, who achieved a first Grand Slam victory in Australia As the latest Grand Slam champion, Mary Pierce has suddenly assumed far greater importance than the drama queen famous for her disruptive father and for taking stage fright on the eve of Wimbledon last June.

Winning the Australian Open singles title on Saturday advanced the adoptive French player to the forefront of the women's game, as it struggles to raise public perception and acquire a new tour sponsor.

Until Pierce overpowered the top seed, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-3, 6-2, there had been little scope for optimism. The women's contribution to a great show had been minimal, unworthy of consideration beside a vibrant men's tournament.

Here was further evidence of how the women's game had declined, partly through reasons beyond its control, since Monica Seles won a highly competitive final against Steffi Graf here two years ago.

Seles has yet to give an indication of her comeback after being stabbed on court in Hamburg; Martina Navratilova has retired; we still do not know how successful Jennifer Capriati will be after her drug problems, and Graf has yet to resume after injury prevented her from defending the Australian title.

Though Sanchez Vicario failed to win the final, a quirk of the computer rankings system will enable her to supplant Graf as the world No 1 next Monday, as a consequence of the German's withdrawal from this week's event in Tokyo.

While Saturday's match was not a classic, it was livelier than what had gone before, and at least there was a new name on the honours board. Having enjoyed her triumph, the 20-year-old Pierce should now prepare for a focus of attention even sharper than the fuss created by her sensational victory against Graf in the semi-finals of the French Open last year. Fortunately, there are signs of maturity in Pierce's play and personality.

Apart from unleashing a potent backhand to reinforce the fearsome forehand - heaven help opponents if she improves her serve and ventures forward to volley - she moved briskly, and did not lack the confidence to make amends for her loss to Sanchez Vicario in the French Open final.

Significantly, she achieved the success in the absence of her coach, Nick Bollettieri, and her mother, Yannick. Her father has been banned from tournaments since being ejected from the French Open in 1993.

It is a long time since a woman won an initial Grand Slam singles title without a parent at the courtside, and it will do Pierce's self-belief no harm to remember that she accomplished the job on her own.

she remains in contact with her father, but does not allow him to influence her career. "I'm sure he probably watched, and I'm sure he is very happy for me," she said. He did, and he is. Speaking by telephone from his home in Florida, Jim Pierce said: "It was great, exactly as I thought it would be. Mary dominated."

The new champion does have one particular obstacle to overcome. During matches, she irritates as many people as she delights. Some despair at her booming, hit-or-miss style. Others dislike her haughty demeanour, preening between points and affronted outbursts at umpires and line judges.

"I hate it myself," she said. "I can't watch when my matches are shown again on television. The person on court is not the person I am off the court."

She promises to address the situation, while taking care not to change anything that might dilute her competitive spirit. pounds