By 9 A.M. ON Easter Sunday the front parking lot at Shoney's Inn restaurant in Tampa was filling with carloads of families, all dressed in their holiday best. Around back was a white '79 Cadillac with a missing hubcap and a trunk filled with one family's troubles and dreams.
Upstairs, in a room at the inn, Jim Pierce, a tanned man of 54, peered through the magnifying glass on his jeweler's visor as he set the tension on a racket-stringing machine. "Gotta get it just right each time," he said.
In the adjoining room 15-year-old Mary Pierce sat quietly in a chair by the TV as her mother, Yannick, brushed and braided Mary's long blonde hair. Off in the corner by himself, her brother David, 14, killed time by reading the morning paper. "Easter. You know, it doesn't even seem like a holiday," the mother said. "When you're on the road so much, all the days run together."
The days had blurred into a 10-month mission for the Pierces, who have piled into that old Caddy and rolled along tennis's back roads from hotel to hotel, tournament to tournament—running on the high-octane potential of Mary's burgeoning career and her father's relentless drive to coach her to stardom.
May 6, 1990
The Pierces still consider the Tampa-St. Petersburg area home, but they have no house. Four years ago they sold their $200,000 house north of Clearwater in order to devote everything to Mary's tennis. This was only two years after she had taken her first lesson and about the time she rocketed to the No. 2 national ranking in girls' 12-and-unders. In 1985 she worked with the legendary Harry Hopman in Bardmoor, Fla., the first stop on a road map that became cluttered with confrontations between the father and the tennis establishment over how best to develop his daughter.
Pierce, in fact, gradually alienated the United States Tennis Association, which had offered coaching as well as limited financial backing to Mary. Last July he gave up looking for a permanent training base and defiantly hit the highway with his family and the white Maltese terrier he cuddles like a baby.
While Pierce is clearly in the driver's seat, the passenger with the greatest burden is Mary. Since she turned pro in April 1989, her tournament earnings, roughly $18,000, coupled with money from Yannick's mother in France, have kept the Pierces rolling. In essence the family is riding the promise of a young player many tennis authorities say has the talent to become a top performer on the women's tour. They point to her precociously powerful 5'10", 120-pound physique and her attacking style. "The barometer we usually use is Top 20 in the world, and I think there is no question that she's got that potential," says Ron Woods, director of Player Development for the USTA.
"She hits the ball as well as Jennifer Capriati," says Kim Warwick—once ranked as high as No. 22 on the men's tour—who has worked with Mary.
But look again. Mary represents the flip side of the Capriati story. Unlike Jennifer, who in March made a heralded pro debut at 13 in Boca Raton, Fla., Mary received no media coverage in her pro debut last year, at the Family Circle Magazine Cup in Hilton Head, S.C. Hardly anyone noticed that at 14 years, two months, she was at the time the youngest American (pre-Capriati) to turn pro. Capriati signed a $4 million endorsement contract before her first tournament; Pierce has yet to land an endorsement deal. But she's out there, plugging away as the 186th-ranked player on the tour. Unrecognized, but not unnoticed.
"If you ask me who are the promising children, I would have to put her down as one," says Billie Jean King. "And yet, here she is walking around and nobody knows who she is."
Capriati, of course, quickly impressed most observers with her knack for thriving under pressure. People who have worked with Mary believe the stress is taking its toll. "I think she is under tremendous pressure to do well," says Warwick. "Tremendous pressure to perform for her father."
Mary says no, that she loves what she is doing and that if her father is hard on her at times, well, he only wants her to give 100%. "He's right," she says sweetly, softly. "He does it all for the best, you know. I know that. Other people look at him and say, 'My god.' But I understand."
Few others do. Pierce's controversial ways are, in fact, legend.
He admits to having been punched in the jaw by the father of one of Mary's opponents during a juniors match in an argument over the quality of the officiating (he retaliated by knocking the man to the ground with one swat of a meaty hand); to having had a cup of soda flung in his face by the mother of another of Mary's opponents after he announced to his daughter, "You should have beat the bitch!"; and to having yelled from the stands at the 1987 Orange Bowl juniors championships, "Mary, kill the bitch," which prompted Mary to throw her racket in his direction.
Last August, at a satellite tournament in York, Pa., on the eve of Mary's first pro tournament victory, Pierce took her out at night to an empty K Mart parking lot and hit balls to her in the rain. "I'd rather be with my kids than have a pusher sticking needles in their arms," he says defiantly. "I like being with my children. We don't go anywhere—anywhere—without them. And it's been that way all their lives."
Away from competitions, Pierce can be a different person. He has a country-boy charm and candor. Friends talk of his warmth and generosity. "Jim and I were golfing buddies," says former next-door-neighbor John H. Williams III. "He once made me a ball marker with a diamond in it and my initials, too—and he didn't owe me a dime!"
Pierce's favorite piece of jewelry is the $14,000 gold Rolex that he wears on his wrist. He can talk up a storm about it: "I love it, you know. My father used to say, when somebody died, 'And he didn't even have a good watch!' So maybe that stuck in the back of my mind."
Pierce remembers his father, who ran a small grocery store, for more than his philosophy about watches. He recalls a bitter relationship. "I carried an ass-whipping with me to school every day," Pierce says. "I promised that my children would never be beat. I don't want anybody to do anything to them, period."
At age 15, with only an eighth-grade education, Pierce says, he dropped out of school and ran away. He says he spent four years in the Marines and eventually wound up in Miami Beach, taking whatever small jobs he could find in construction or lifeguarding. His life changed 17 years ago on Miami Beach when he met Yannick, a native of France and about a dozen years his junior, who was on a Christmas break from studying for her doctorate in linguistics at the University of Montreal. One week after she returned to Montreal, he showed up at her door. He persuaded her not to move back to France after getting her degree. A year later, they were married.
"I wasted my life until my wife and I got married," he says. "I was just a knock-around beach bum."
Shortly after Mary was born, in Montreal in 1975, the family moved to Hollywood, Fla. As a child Mary excelled in gymnastics and ballet. "And she always liked to play ball—any kind," Yannick says. When Mary began taking tennis lessons, her father also became interested in the game, soaking up every detail he could about technique and training. The more Mary excelled, the more he grew certain he wanted to commit himself to developing her promise. So he put her on his own weight-and-nutrition program and devised drills—in one he stood at net and slammed shots full-force at her in order to hone her reactions.
"Maybe I'm trying to live my youth now," he says. "I don't know. But we have a great time."
Officials of the USTA aren't so sure about that. They have become frustrated by Pierce's refusal to allow them to refine Mary's game. They flew her to Arlington, Va., for a USTA fitness test, and her performance drew comments like "the best we've seen yet!" for flexibility, and "superior" for her 57 situps in one minute—13 above the average. That only reinforced Pierce's opinion that he had trained her better than the USTA could have.
"We made a number of proposals and paid some expenses out of USTA funds for coaching, but in every case no one was able to work with Jim at all, because he insisted on being the boss," Woods says. "This guy has no clue."
Stan Smith, director of coaching for the USTA and a past Wimbledon champion, worked with Mary at a camp, but one that barred all parents. "He loves his daughter and he knows his daughter best, no argument about that," Smith says. "But I don't know if he knows how to win the big tournaments. We have coaches who can help Mary get the match experience she needs."
"I think Mary knows what's going on, and that has to be bothering her," adds Warwick. "But she can't get away from it. The father has to be man enough to step up and say, 'Hey, I've taken her as far as I can. Let's let some professionals take her into the next stage as a great player.' "
For now, Pierce is not likely to allow anyone else to tinker with Mary's career. He talks of moving the family to France, where they flew last Friday to visit Yannick's relatives and to prepare Mary for the French Open and Wimbledon; she must play the qualifying rounds at both tournaments. Says Pam Shriver, "I think what's happening is she's going to feel isolated because of some of the bridges being burned. At that age you want to build bridges. It's a real shame."
Too often Pierce directs his verbal barrages at Mary. Some coaches have seen him berate her after matches and are concerned. Others have only heard about the intensity of the rages. Says Pierce, "I've never gotten mad at Mary because she doesn't win. The only time I will ever get mad is if she doesn't give 100 percent."
On the night of April 10, during the Eckerd Tennis Open in Largo, Fla., the rage slowly emerged, as if from the dark corners of Jim Pierce's past. Mary, making her hometown pro debut, drew ovations from the packed crowd all evening for her solid doubles play with partner Luanne Spadea. For the first time spectators called out her name all match long. Mary and Spadea couldn't capitalize on that support, though, against Laura Gildemeister and Sandra Cecchini. The Pierce-Spadea duo lost 6-1, 3-6, 4-6. The turning point came when Mary and Spadea went ahead 40-love at 4-4 in the third set, only to lose the game.
As Mary walked from the court, new fans clustered around her for autographs. Pierce gave her a hug and then Mary met the media. She was relaxed, upbeat, talking about the biggest crowd she had ever played before. Thirty minutes later, Mary and her family walked through the empty parking lot toward the old Cadillac, planning to find a place to eat. Then Pierce's voice began to rise. He had latched onto the 40-love third-set lead like a pit bull and wouldn't let go.
He began yelling about how "dumb" Mary had been not to put the game away. Up ahead, she started to step into the car of her former hitting partner, Roberto Saad, parked next to the Caddy. "Get out of that car! You're riding with me!" Pierce roared. Quietly, Mary moved to the Cadillac and stood by her mother. Pierce continued, suddenly sounding like a football coach giving a crude dressing-down to a thick-skinned veteran: "What am I gonna do, pat you on the hand and give you a damn piece of candy? S——man, you kidding? You dreaming? You ain't never gonna be——if you play like that. You don't have a brain in your head, man, after playing like that.... I never saw anybody play so stupid in my life.... Gildemeister is exactly like Maleeva and all those other Europeans and South Americans. When they see the weak-minded, cracker-sucking Americans don't want to try to win, they kick your ass, and that's what they did. They made you eat their——!"
The diatribe went on for several more minutes. Then Pierce slid into the driver's seat. The rest of the family followed his lead. Moments later the white Cadillac whipped out of the lot and drove off into the cool, dark Florida night.