NEW YORK — Jim Pierce is standing in a players' lounge at the National Tennis Center describing the talents of his daughter, Mary. He is 55, and she is 16. He wears a gold chain necklace, a gold pinky ring and a gold bracelet with two diamonds the size of dimes. She wears glasses.
He talks a lot. She doesn't. He watches her matches and yells. She rolls her eyes and plays on.
"Of course I put pressure on her," Pierce says. "You think Schwarzkopf put pressure on the Marines? Tennis isn't tennis no more. It's a big business."
Is this a tennis dad or a fight promoter? To some, the Pierces
embody the evils of a sport that robs a player of a childhood and compels a parent to exchange love for money. To others, they simply are a headstrong clan traveling down a glory road from Florida to France to international stardom.
Yesterday, the daughter and the father put on a show at the U.S. Open. Mary Pierce won a wonderful second-round match under a searing sun and immense pressure, fighting off two match points before putting away Lori McNeil, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6). In the stands, Jim Pierce commented on almost every shot his daughter made. He even got into an argument with a linesmen and was told to "shut up" by a nearby spectator.
"I tell him to relax," Mary said. "If I need support, I look to the && side."
The father obviously is the driving force in this tennis career, which, despite past controversy, is right on schedule. Mary Pierce has a world ranking of No. 34 with a bullet. She is a rising star with a two-fisted style that shakes her braided blond hair and rattles opponents.
"They haven't seen the best of Mary Pierce yet," the father said. "Right now, they're still playing the girl, the 16-year-old Mary Pierce."
Even by tennis standards, this is a strange story. At one level, you've got this kid with the talent to be a champion. On another level, there is this father, a self-described "Southern cracker hillbilly" from Florida who says he dropped out of school at 15, joined the Marines, worked as a jeweler and now devotes his life to his family and his daughter.
Mary picked up a racket as a 10-year-old and a year later, her father sold the family's $200,000 house north of Clearwater, Fla. He packed his French-born wife, Yannick, his son, David, and his daughter into a 1979 Cadillac, and they traveled the amateur circuit.
Mary left school after the sixth grade and is completing the remainder of her education through correspondence courses.
The Pierces caused quite the stir among the amateurs. A father of an opposing player once punched Jim in the chin during a match. An opposing player's mother once dumped a soda on him for calling her daughter "a bitch."
But the Pierces' biggest battles were with the U.S. Tennis Association. Although they were offered funding for coaching and training, the Pierces consistently battled the U.S. tennis establishment. Finally, they simply packed up and left America. Mary turned pro in 1989, and last year the family moved to Villeneuve Loubet, France.
Mary played for the French Federation Cup team this year and earned a spot for France at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
"The people in the USTA, they're the greatest I've ever seen at $500 lunches with cocktails in their hands," Jim Pierce said. "They're talking about a player-development program, but as far as I'm concerned, they don't have one. They should all lose their jobs for losing Mary Pierce to Europe."
Jim Pierce says his abrasive style affects his daughter's career. He continually argues line calls and badgers USTA officials. His mere presence causes Women's Tennis Association public relations personnel to stand watch. During an interview, coaches of other players stop by to listen.
"They're punishing the girl because of the father, because I'm a hard-nosed SOB," he said.
Mary says she appreciates her father's contribution to her career. He has cursed at her during matches and taunted her in practices, but together, they are trying to create a career.
"My dad has made me tougher," she said. "I don't pay attention to the yelling."
For Mary Pierce, the shouts, the life on the road, the grind of the tour are all part of childhood. Her goal is to become a champion.
"I don't see anything wrong with it, going on tour at 14," Mary said. "A lot of girls go on tour. Some go to college. Some don't. It's a choice you make."
The Pierces have made their pact with tennis. They will struggle
to win. Let others count the costs.