FRENCH OPEN / WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH : Rain Falls on Pierce's Parade in Paris

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The French were singing in the rain Saturday at Roland Garros Stadium, but they will have to wait until today to finish their ode to Mary Pierce.

After waiting four hours for the sky to clear and the highly anticipated French Open women's final between Pierce and Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to begin, 17,000 fans were sent home when the match was suspended after 17 minutes.

Pierce, 19, hoping to become the first French women's champion in Paris since 1967, was leading, 2-1, and held a break point in the fourth game.

The match is scheduled to be completed before today's all-Spanish men's final between Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui.

Rain has not forced the men's and women's Grand Slam finals to be held on the same day since they started playing on different days in 1979. The last time there was a rain delay at any Grand Slam event was at Wimbledon in 1989. In 1973, the French Open men's final was postponed for two days because of the weather.

That the French Tennis Federation decided to start the match on a cold, blustery day was surprising. But it had more to do with the audience than the athletes. A brief statement said the match was started out of respect for the public.

Sanchez Vicario's coach, Gabriel Urpi, was asked if it was fair to play under the circumstances.

"You should ask it to the tournament (officials)," he said. "If you look at the interest of the players only, it is better to cancel the match."

But if they had postponed it earlier, they might have faced another French Revolution. Pierce, who has dual citizenship in the United States and France, has given women's tennis--and the fanatical French sporting public--a desperately needed boost the last two weeks.

That much was evident as fans huddled in the foyers to stay warm while waiting for the rain to subside. As the day faded into a gray evening, the rain let up and fans crowded into the Center Court stadium. When the officials and ballboys and ballgirls marched out in preparation for the final, the audience stirred in its seats. Brightly colored umbrellas opened as a light mist sprayed the stadium, and a festive mood prevailed.

But the players did not show.

As the minutes passed, the Parisians started clapping, singing and, yes, doing their version of the wave. Haughty and upright Roland Garros started looking like a football stadium in Ohio on a cold November afternoon.

They were placated briefly when Pierce went to the players' seats to converse with her coach, Nick Bollettieri. Knowing 17,000 pairs of eyes were on her, she waved as she returned to the locker room.

Then, about half an hour after the umpires had taken their positions, Pierce and Sanchez Vicario walked onto the red clay, following two ballgirls carrying their bottled water and drinks.

And the noisy gathering became still when Pierce served the first game. After each point, fans urged each other to hush.

Then the noise resumed when Sanchez Vicario served. The No. 2-ranked player had defeated Julie Halard of France on Center Court in a quarterfinal last week, so she said Pierce's strong following did not bother her.

But it seemed as if it might do so on the damp, windswept court. Sanchez Vicario, playing in her fifth Grand Slam tournament final, made 11 unforced errors and Pierce seven in their brief encounter.

"There is just nothing much to say about the match," Urpi said.

At least not until today.

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