Hail Mary The prayers of a more devout Mary Pierce, not to mention those of long-suffering French fans, were finally answered in Paris

June 18, 2000

Even by tennis standards it was a dysfunctional relationship. For
Mary Pierce, Roland Garros was the source of so much angst, so
many bad memories. It all started when she was 13 and, by virtue
of her mother's French provenance, came to the Paris tennis
complex from Florida to train under the auspices of the French
Tennis Federation. A stranger in a strange land, she mirthlessly
bludgeoned tennis balls on the clay courts by day, then cried
herself to sleep in a nearby dorm room by night. She left within
a month. When she was 18, her famously obstreperous father, Jim,
was ejected from the grounds during the 1993 French Open after he
harassed fans and choked one of Mary's cousins. Jim was later
banned from showing his face at women's tour venues. In the years
that followed, time and again Mary was booed by the crowds at
Roland Garros as she left the courts after desultory defeats.
"For all sorts of reasons," she says, "it had always been
difficult to play here."

Yet the place remained oddly alluring to her. She can't say
why--maybe it was the stadium's mystique, maybe it was just the
way the Parisian sun reflects off the red clay. "I'd been
through so much [at Roland Garros], but I still looked forward
to playing here," says Pierce, 25. "This place had become part
of who I was. I always wanted to feel like I belonged here."

Last week she transformed Roland Garros into Chez Marie. Playing
the best tennis of her life, the sixth-seeded Pierce won the
French Open and gained the second Grand Slam singles title (the
first was the 1995 Australian Open crown) of her dramatic and
melodramatic career. She beat the tournament's third and first
seeds, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis, in riveting three-set
matches. Then Pierce subdued a nervous Conchita Martinez 6-2,
7-5 in Saturday's final to become the first, ahem, French
women's champion at Roland Garros since Francoise Durr in 1967.
"I have so many emotions," Pierce said after the final, "that I
don't feel anything."

The French fans, whom Pierce had described before the tournament
as "fickle," mounted her bandwagon in droves. TOUS AVEC MARY (All
for Mary) shrieked a headline in the national sports daily,
L'Equipe. More than half of all French households tuned in to her
last two matches. Before the final Pierce received a note of
encouragement from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and another from
President Jacques Chirac conveying "a thousand bravos" and his
hope that "all French people will be on your side."

Truth be told, Pierce may have a French passport, but she is
scarcely more Gallic than the Juan Valdez coffee served at the
Roland Garros food court. Her father is American. She was born
in Montreal, grew up in Florida and can often be found at the
suburban Cleveland--Cleveland!--home of her beau, Indians second
baseman Roberto Alomar. Pierce has never resided in France for
more than a few months, and her French is junior-year-abroad
level. Midway through the tournament one cynical French
journalist asked Pierce if she was the most American of the
French players or merely the most French of the Americans.
Awkwardly she replied, "A little of both."

Then again, it's easy to see why the French embraced her. For
years one of tennis's heaviest hitters, Pierce has finally
cultivated craft to complement her power. In Paris she won
plenty of points with searing ground strokes, yet her most
effective shot was a feathery, sharply angled forehand that she
unspooled once she had her opponent pinned behind the baseline.
"Mary is a killer who has so much power," said Hingis after
winning the doubles with Pierce on Sunday, "but in this
tournament she's played with more security and purpose."

Pierce, who has won two tournaments this year and risen to No. 3
in the rankings, attributes her improved play to a newfound
spirituality. She says she was always a devout Catholic, but her
faith has intensified of late. She ushered in the New Year at
the home of Alomar's parents in Puerto Rico by lighting a candle
and saying a prayer. She hasn't stopped praying since. "Too many
good things have been happening in my life lately for it to be a
coincidence," says Pierce. "I put everything in God's hands. I
don't have any fears." Even on the tennis court Pierce wears an
immense crucifix that she purchased with Alomar on a trip to the
Dominican Republic.

The other cross she bears is her relationship with her father,
who abused her verbally and, she has claimed, physically early in
her career. (Jim has repeatedly denied physically abusing Mary.)
They had a rapprochement of sorts in February when she asked him
to come to her house, in Bradenton, Fla., and help her train.
Mary won't discuss the relationship with reporters, but she
thanked Jim in her winner's speech in Paris. On the other hand,
she has yet to ask the WTA tour to relax the rule requiring Jim
to submit a written notice before he attends a tournament. "She
doesn't want to cut him off," says a source close to Mary, "but
the relationship will be on her terms."

She has gained some stability from her relationship with Alomar,
whom she met three years ago in Florida. "We clicked right
away," says Pierce. They are often in separate time zones, but
they speak on the phone daily and often watch each other
compete. "We talk about the mental part of being a sports
figure, what goes through her head," says Alomar, who spent much
of his past off-season following Pierce on tour and even fills
in as an occasional practice partner. "She beats me easy," he
says, "but I can ace her."

Pierce's recent ascent also coincides with her having retained
her 24-year-old brother, David, as a coach. On Feb. 25 David was
teaching tennis at a club in London when Mary called and asked
him to work with her. Three days later he was with her at a
tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz. No glorified gofer, David takes
his duties seriously. At the Indian Wells event in California in
March, Mary won her first match 6-1, 6-3. David, though, was
dissatisfied with her play and ordered her back on the court for
a hitting session. "He may be the toughest coach I've ever had,"
said Mary in Paris, "but that's what I needed. What happened here
is the result of hard work."

Industriousness is also the hallmark of the men's winner,
Gustavo (Guga) Kuerten, who has the girth of a net post but
smacks the ball with lethal pace. He triumphed despite falling
behind two sets to one and a service break in the fourth in both
his quarterfinal and semifinal matches, against Yevgeny
Kafelnikov and Juan Carlos Ferrero, respectively. In the final
on Sunday he needed 11 match points in a breathtaking 96-minute
fourth set to beat Magnus Norman 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6. In winning
his second French Open (the first was in 1997), Kuerten played
27 sets and nearly 20 hours of tennis. "It's time for a nap," he
said.

Kuerten is the most prominent Brazilian sports icon since race
car driver Ayrton Senna, who died in 1994, but he remains
remarkably down-to-earth. He spent his time between matches
trying to learn how to play Bob Marley's Redemption Song on the
guitar he recently purchased, and he's surely the only tennis
pro who not only flies his grandmother to matches but also
allows her to decorate his apartment. For Kuerten, 23, perhaps
the best part of having won at Roland Garros is that he has
another trophy to present to his younger brother, Guilherme, who
suffers from cerebral palsy. "I don't think he knows whether I'm
winning or losing," says Guga. "Just seeing me on television is
enough to make him happy."

In addition to Kuerten, other young players in the men's draw
offered a glimpse of life on the ATP tour in the era after Pete
Sampras and Andre Agassi. The two most dominant players of the
1990s, now ages 28 and 30, respectively, were bounced in the
first week. If you can get past the absence of Americans, the
future of men's tennis suddenly smells sweet. Playing in his
first French Open, Ferrero, a 20-year-old Spanish arriviste,
reached the semifinals, all the while betraying no sense of awe.
Russia's Marat Safin, 20, has the makings of a contemporary
star: clean strokes, an all-court game and a hair-trigger
temper. During his quarterfinal loss to Norman, Safin shattered
three rackets. No big deal, he says, because he smashed 48 last
year.

Then there's Norman, 24, a Swedish workaholic who dropped only
one set before the final and is as steady as can be from the
baseline. (He was less composed in the interview room, where his
face turned the color of la terre battue whenever he was asked
about his newly revealed romantic ties to Hingis.) "A lot of
players introduced themselves at this tournament," he said.

So they did. Ultimately, though, the tournament belonged to
old-hand Pierce. On her third match point on Saturday she
clubbed a serve down the middle that Martinez batted meekly into
the net. Just like that the nattering Roland Garros demons were
exorcised. Pierce sat in her chair before the awards ceremony, a
towel draped over her head, and said a prayer. She fidgeted with
the rosary beads that hung from her neck and, gripped by
euphoria, listened as 15,000 French fans offered a collective
Hail Mary in return.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Gumby The rubbery-limbed Kuerten bounced back again and again to win his second French title.

Kuerten spent his time between matches trying to learn to play a
Bob Marley song on the guitar.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)