Long time coming, Pierce, Paris triumph

Beating Martinez makes her first Frenchwoman in 33 years to win title

Tennis

June 11, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - Francoise Durr leaned forward and gave Mary Pierce a kiss on each cheek, then held her tight and patted her back.

Durr, who won the French Open title in 1967, had been waiting with increasing impatience for 33 years for another Frenchwoman to win the tennis tournament that matters most in France. Yesterday, her vigil came to an end as Pierce proved too strong physically and mentally for Conchita Martinez, winning the title by 6-2, 7-5.

Pierce had often been shaky on big occasions in the past and often at odds with the Parisians who have sat and watched her in recent years. But she had a much smoother ride this year, demonstrating a more complete grasp of the game than when she last reached the final here in 1994 and earning the support, if not quite the adoration, of the French crowd, which cheered her warmly but not wildly.

"I thought I would never win this tournament," Pierce, 25, said in French, fighting through tears in her victory speech. "It was my dream to win it and now it has come true, and it's great for it to happen in front of all of you."

It was Pierce's second Grand Slam singles title; she also won the 1995 Australian Open. And, it restored her to a place of prominence that she had lost in recent years with the arrival of younger rivals like Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.

"This is a much better feeling than when I won in Australia in 1995," she said.

She is a much better player, as well. Taught by her American father, Jim, to swing with remarkable force from the baseline, Pierce has long been able to slug a tennis ball with world-class power, but in recent years, with the help of her former coach, Michael de Jongh, and her current coach, her younger brother, David, she has improved her footwork, her volleys, her serve, her consistency and her grasp of tactics.

With the help of her boyfriend, Cleveland Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar, and a deeper religious faith, she also has managed to calm her nerves under duress. She now smiles more often than groans when her huge shots go awry.

In the semifinals here, when she beat Hingis, the No. 1 seed, she lost the second set after squandering a match point and then roared back to win in three.

"I'm not at all sure she would have been able to keep her composure after losing that match point in previous years," said Durr, who once coached Pierce as captain of the French Federation Cup team. "She has come a long way with her tennis, and I'm quite delighted for her."

The sixth-seeded Pierce took control of the match in a hurry, pressuring Martinez hard in her opening service game, which the Spaniard managed to hold, and then winning five consecutive games as her superior baseline power and Martinez's clearly tense mood made for little suspense.

The fifth-seeded Martinez, often dour on court, credited a happier attitude with her run to this year's final, but as she hit ball after ball ineffectively, there was no trace of delight on her face.

After winning the match, Pierce shot both arms into the air as she wheeled to face her brother and her French mother, Yannick. And, appropriately for a woman who was born in Canada, has lived most of her life in the United States and has represented France since her teens, she gave her victory speech in French and English.

"A lot of things have gone on these last few years," she told the crowd. "I think I will never, never forget this day."

In the men's final today, Magnus Norman, trying to emerge from the shadow of Swedish Grand Slam champions Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, will meet Gustavo Kuerten, the gangly Brazilian, who won the French Open in 1997.

Yesterday, Australians Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge beat Paul Haarhuis and Sandon Stolle, 7-6 (7), 6-4, to win their record-breaking 58th title, completing a career Grand Slam and saying goodbye to Paris as a team.

Woodforde, 34, is retiring at the end of the year.

The record of 57 doubles titles was previously held jointly by Peter Fleming-John McEnroe and Bob Hewitt-Frew McMillan.

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