Mary Pierce's new best friend, Theo, goes everywhere with her. You can see him, standing a step or two behind her, as she signs autographs. Or you may spot him as he stolidly watches one of her practice sessions, a white towel draped around his sweating neck. There he is again, watching her from the box seats during a match. Mary is never out of Theo's company. Theo is this week's bodyguard.
What's wrong with this picture? By all rights, Pierce, 18 years old and ranked No. 14 in the world, should be looking forward to a happy and successful future on the tennis court. Instead she has had to hire a revolving cast of bodyguards, check into hotels under assumed names and file two restraining orders—all to protect herself from an abusive and dangerous pursuer: her father, 57-year-old Jim Pierce.
Ever since Mary turned pro in 1989, at the age of 14, she has been known as much for her father's abusive behavior toward her and her opponents as she has for her tennis talent. This June she finally fired her father from his position as her coach. That coincided with the decision by Mary's mother, Yannick, 43, to divorce Jim, after nearly 20 years together.
Mary now acknowledges what everyone in the tennis world has long suspected: that Jim has hit her regularly. Moreover, Mary, her 17-year-old brother, David, and Yannick say that Jim—a convicted felon who, while incarcerated, spent time in a psychiatric prison ward—frightens them. In tiling for a restraining order against him in New Jersey Superior Court on July 20 before she played in an event in Mahwah, Mary asked for protection, declaring that Jim had made "terroristic threats" and "threatened [her] life." She also stated that Jim had told her, "If you think there was a nut in Waco, Texas, you haven't seen anything yet."
August 22, 1993
Mary recites the extraordinary circumstances of her life in a detached manner, as if it had all happened to somebody else. Whatever may be broken or hurt, she keeps hidden. Her face rarely changes expression, even when she discusses the last time her father left bruises on her. "You never know what he's capable of," says Mary. "One reason I hesitated to break away was that you just don't know what he might do."
Mary's bid for independence from her father has been aided by the Women's Tennis Council (WTC), the governing body of the women's circuit. On June 17 the council barred Jim from attending any more events on the 1993 tour because of his violent behavior in May at the French Open. At every tournament Mary enters, head shots of Jim are circulated among the guards and posted at ticket booths, with instructions to deny him entry. The week after Mahwah, Mary got a restraining order in San Diego, where she played a tournament, and she plans to get another one in New York City to ensure that Jim stays away from her during the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 30.
Mary is a lithe, strong young woman, 5'11" and 130 pounds, with the hardest strokes on the women's circuit, according to no less an authority than No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf. Mary has a quick, sardonic wit and is tough-minded. Many people are convinced that without Jim, she can crack the Top 10. Despite the tense circumstances and the constant presence of bodyguards, Mary and her mother and brother are visibly relieved to be separated from Jim, who's now living at the family condo in Delray Beach, Fla. Last month, for the first time in her life, Mary had a say in who would be her coach. She picked Angel Gimenez, who used to coach sixth-ranked Gabriela Sabatini. In San Diego she went to her first rock concert, staying to listen to Aerosmith until nearly midnight. She also went Boogie boarding for the first time. She reached the quarterfinals of the tournament before losing to Graf. "It's like a weight is off me," says Mary. "When I miss a shot, it's not the end of the world anymore."
Mary doesn't think her father intends to let her go. Following Jim's ejection from the French Open, she wrote him a letter asking for her freedom. She wrote the letter because, she says, "whenever I try to talk to him it doesn't end well."
Jim read the letter in front of Mary and told her that he understood. Then he proceeded to follow Mary, Yannick and David through France and Italy, seemingly stalking them. In Corsica, says Yannick, Jim took their passports from her purse at the airport, and she had to call the police to retrieve them. In Palermo he lurked outside a tournament entrance on the day that Mary played the final. Nervous and angry, she lost to 54th-ranked Czech Radka Bobkova and blamed the loss on her father's presence.
The next day Jim followed the family to a hotel in Latina, Italy, where he attacked Mary's bodyguard at the time, Michel, in the hallway outside her hotel room while Mary cowered behind a locked bathroom door. The brawl ended with the arrival of the police. Jim, who sustained a gash in his left arm, claimed that Michel, who was cut across the forehead, had stabbed him. Mary, David and Yannick say that Jim was the one with the knife. Since that incident Jim has stayed in Delray Beach. But the WTC remains on alert, and so do the Pierces.
Jim refused to be interviewed by SI, which first reported his abusive behavior toward Mary in our May 7, 1990, issue. When reached by telephone, he said, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has done me so bad, the only reason I can see talking to them is if they pay me."
In interviews with other publications, he has denied physically abusing Mary. He said that at Yannick's instigation his family had thrown him out "like an old dog" and that he is so poor he will have to sell his gold jewelry. He admits to punching Mary's bodyguard in Italy but says, "I just wanted to talk to her."
Mary says she pays all of Jim's bills, including the rent on the condominium. Mary, who earned $183,436 in prize money last year and next to nothing off the court, also offered to open a bank account for her father and to help him resume his former occupation as a jeweler, but he refused. She provides him with $500 a week but is loath to give him more for fear he will buy a plane ticket and follow her.
According to Mary, she has no intention of ending her relationship with her father. "My dad has done a lot for me," she says, "and I thank him very much. He was there in the beginning." But she does not want any contact with him for the time being, and she resents his attempts to control her. "I don't know what he thinks he's going to accomplish," she says. "It's not going to make things any better with me or my mother or my brother."
Jim has displayed a pattern of physical abuse toward Mary ever since she first picked up a racket, when she was 10. "He would slap me after I lost a match or sometimes just if I had had a bad practice," she says. Mary seldom told anyone of her father's abuse, including her mother. "When I told my mom, that would cause fights too," she says. "So sometimes you're afraid to say anything because of that."
Jim has admitted to striking her once, at a tournament in Italy in 1991, when he slapped her for spitting and cursing at him after a practice session. Yannick demurs when asked if Jim has struck her as well. "I don't answer that," she says. "It's too private." However, according to the restraining order Yannick filed on Mary's behalf in San Diego on July 29, Jim "would threaten to kill me, would slap me around." As long as Mary didn't complain, no one could help her. Jim made sure Mary had no close friends, insisting that the family was enough. In November 1990, when Mary's very first date came to pick her up, Jim made the two of them sit in the living room and watch a match between Sabatini and Monica Seles. He would not let them leave until it ended.
A legion of coaches and hitting partners came and went. "As soon as they got friendly with Mary, he'd get rid of them," says David. "It was all about control."
Small wonder that Mary has been an isolated figure on the circuit. She keeps company with the entourage that she financially supports: her mother and brother, Gimenez, hitting partner Doug Sachs and the latest bodyguard. In San Diego that was Theo; at Flushing Meadow it will be someone else. Mary has not been back to Delray Beach in four months, and until she's eliminated from the U.S. Open, she will live in New York-area hotels.
When she wanted a snack in San Diego, Theo dashed from the practice court to the concession stands with her, keeping a protective hand on her shoulder. Last week, during a tournament in Los Angeles, she lunched on the terrace of a restaurant with her mother and a scary-looking guy dressed all in black and wearing a billed cap that bore the legend NO FEAR. He was her new best friend, Nelson.
Mary has not had a permanent home or attended school since 1986, when Jim pulled her out of sixth grade so that she could train full time. She and David take correspondence courses. Says Mary, "I would like to have stayed in school, gone to a prom." Instead, the Pierces lived a nomadic existence: Jim quit his job, and the whole family traveled the junior and satellite circuits.
Jim worked his daughter eight hours a day. Sometimes he made her practice until midnight while David napped by the net. Bob Butterfield, a coach who worked briefly with Mary in Florida in 1989, says her decision to sever ties with her father "is the smartest thing she's ever done. You could say it comes eight years too late. This kid played under extremely adverse, even deplorable conditions."
From time to time she rebelled against those conditions. She would say she planned to remain at a girfriend's house for a sleepover and then go out dancing. She would wise off or ignore Jim. Sometimes she would tank a match or default one to spite him. At the International Players Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., in 1992, Jim became particularly vocal during her third-round match against Brenda Schultz of the Netherlands. As Jim grew more and more abusive, Mary's play deteriorated. Finally, after Jim screamed at her once again, Mary, now trailing 4-0 in the third set, walked to the chair and defaulted, claiming she had a strained hack.
Ron Woods, the director of player development for the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), noticed a similar pattern when Mary was playing satellite tournaments in the late 1980s. "Mary doesn't respond well to pressure," says Woods. "She would typically tank matches or simply give up. Remove the distraction and imagine what she could do. Now she'll have a chance to work things through."
During a three-week swing through Europe last year without Jim, Mary reached the semis of one tournament and won another. He didn't accompany her to this year's Australian Open, and she reached the quarterfinals, where she had three match points against Sabatini. Performances like those are what lead some observers to believe that Mary will have a breakthrough if she can remain free of her father and learn some strategy from Gimenez. "Mary can hit," says Nick Bollettieri, who has worked with her. "Now she has to learn how to win."
The public humiliations Mary has endured are as painful as the slaps. In 1988 the family was asked to leave the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy in Wesley Chapel, Fla., because of Jim's rages. A year earlier, at the Orange Bowl junior championships, Jim screamed during Mary's match against Magdalena Maleeva, "Mary, kill the bitch!" Mary reacted by throwing her racket toward him.
The Florida Tennis Association banned Jim for six months from junior tournaments in 1987 after receiving a series of complaints from players and parents. Once Jim slapped another player's father, knocking him to the ground. Another time he swore at and menaced a 12-year-old player who had just beaten Mary. After the match he stepped from behind a car and screamed, "You're a——, ——scumbag and you're never gonna amount to anything. You only beat my daughter because you got lucky. You're a piece of——."
In 1989 the USTA's player-development program withdrew its funding from the Pierces because Jim had quarreled with every coach the association had assigned to Mary. USTA staffers had the impression that Mary feared that her father would harm her physically. "It's surprising that she could play with that kind of baggage," says Woods. "We witnessed emotional outbursts at tournaments or when he was coaching her. We heard the intensity of his language. We were pretty convinced it went deeper than that, but we had no firsthand observations."
At the 1992 French Open, Jim punched two fans who had baited him during one of Mary's matches—and then bragged to the press about what he had done. At the Olympics in Barcelona, Jim berated Mary so fiercely after her second-round loss that she fled to the locker room in tears. Still furious, Jim then went out and wrecked his rental car.
The final straw for the WTC was a verbal outburst by Jim during Mary's third-round win at this year's French Open over Kimberly Po. Tournament officials ejected him from Roland Garros, pulled his pass and submitted a report to the WTC. There was more. A day earlier at the stadium, Jim had knocked down and choked Mary's 22-year-old cousin, Olivier, who had to be treated at the tournament infirmary. The reason? Jim had become furious when Mary and Olivier laughed and talked while watching a match she was supposed to be scouting.
WTC officials now say that the mounting evidence of physical abuse was a factor in their decision to ban Jim from the tour. They had received reports from players who had witnessed Jim's attacks on his daughter. One official had seen bruises on Mary at this year's French Open. When asked about the bruises, Mary pointed to two places on her arm where her father had gripped her so hard he left marks. Although the reports of physical abuse were not officially brought before the WTC when it met in June to rule on Jim's ban, sources say that members of the council were aware of them, "It certainly consolidated the decision," says a council member.
Jim's conduct went unchecked for so long in part because Gerry Smith, executive director of the Women's Tennis Association, which represents the players, viewed it as a family matter. While there had been rumors of abuse, Smith says he never had any hard evidence. He also said, "This was not in the job description."
Complicating matters further is the fact that Jim can be a warm and personable man. Says Rick Macci, who owns the tennis academy where Mary trains in Delray Beach, "He's a real good guy, and he cares a lot. She didn't just land at Number 14 in the world." Smith also likes Jim personally. "He's a teddy bear," he says. "He was always sorry [after losing control in public], and he always had an excuse."
Mary explains the confusion about her father's character this way: "He's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." He certainly has had multiple identities. Jim Pierce is actually Bobby Glenn Pearce of Greensboro, N.C. He is a convicted felon, a discovery made by tennis writer Cindy Hahn nearly a year ago. When Hahn confronted Jim with his past, he threatened her life. "I've got nothing left," he told Hahn. "When I go, I want everybody to go with me. You have no idea how my mind works." On Nov. 19, 1992, the WTC passed what informally became known as the Jim Pierce rule—an agent, parent or coach can be banned from any or all tour events for his or her courtside conduct—and seven months later the council invoked it against Jim.
Between the ages of 18 and 48, Bobby Glenn Pearce was repeatedly in trouble with the law and spent a total of five years incarcerated. Although he boasts that he is a former Marine, in 1954 he was court-martialed for going AWOL, sentenced to six months of hard labor and given a dishonorable discharge. In 1959 Pearce and a girlfriend were involved in a check-forging scam in Greensboro. He was sentenced to 18 to 24 months in prison, but he escaped after serving only 11 days.
A year later he was arrested in New York City and charged with robbery and grand larceny in the first degree, assault in the second degree and carrying dangerous weapons (two knives). He pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in the third degree and was sentenced to 2½ to four years in prison. It was during this time that he was diagnosed as having schizophrenic and paranoid tendencies and spent time in the psychiatric prison ward in New York City's Bellevue Hospital.
In 1963 the outstanding arrest warrant for his North Carolina prison escape caught up with him, and he was returned in custody to Greensboro, where he spent 16 more months in jail. In 1973 he was arrested for another crime. He and a friend stole a TV set and three acrylic paintings from a hotel lobby in Miami Beach. They were caught a short time later, and Pearce was charged with possession of stolen property. He jumped bail a few weeks later and ended up in Montreal.
There Jim, who has an eighth-grade education, met up with Yannick Adjadj, a Frenchwoman who was completing her Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Montreal. In 1975 Mary was born in Montreal. David was born the following year in Greensboro. Jim did not resolve his legal difficulties in Miami Beach until 1984, when he plea-bargained the stolen-property charge and paid a $1,054 fine. He has had no other known run-ins with the law since then. Yannick says years passed before she knew much about Jim's criminal and psychiatric history. "Things accumulate," she says. "It's like a drop of water falls into a glass every day, and one day the glass spills over." She says Jim has never considered counseling: "He thinks he's fine."
The WTC's ban against Jim is scheduled to end on Nov. 22. Anne Person Worcester, managing director of the council, says his actions between now and then will determine whether it will be extended. Ultimately, though, Mary's relationship with her father will not be determined by what the WTC does or does not do. "We can protect her at tournaments, but when she steps off the tour, these become domestic and family problems," Person Worcester says. "They need to resolve this."
While Jim has said he no longer wishes to be his daughter's coach, his family remains extremely wary. "He's thinking something up," says David.
Can there be a happy ending? What would it entail? For Yannick a happy ending would mean the family could continue on the tour without Jim and without having to hide behind assumed names. For David, the forgotten casualty in all this, it would mean a chance to finish high school and play college tennis. For Mary it would mean an end to the family fighting, which has so drained her. "The happy ending would be for my parents to settle their differences, for my mother to set up something more stable for my brother, and for me to keep my own coach," she says. "And to have a home I could go to."
Mary considers that scenario and then laughs. "That's not a happy ending," she says. "That's a fairy tale. One that's not likely to come true."