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Pierce Gets Some Real Recognition : Tennis: She blasts her way past Sanchez Vicario for Australian title, finally overcoming the notoriety of her abusive father.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Power tennis, and its attendant boring inevitability, is thought by some to be undermining men’s tennis. It’s doubtful what benefit will accrue to the women’s game with the emergence of Mary Pierce’s version of the style.

The benefit to Pierce will be immediate. She won today’s Australian Open final by blasting away at every ball that Arantxa Sanchez Vicario scrambled to get across the net. The ability to relentlessly retrieve was all that Sanchez Vicario had left. Gone was her pace and placement.

Pierce knocked all that out of her in the 6-3, 6-2 victory at the National Tennis Center. The 20-year-old won her first Grand Slam title in a match that offered little suspense and fewer moments of superb play. Pierce’s game is all booming forehands and slashing backhands. She approached the net eight times in the 85-minute match. Drop shots aren’t in her arsenal.

Yet the style has served her well here. She did not lose a set during the two-week tournament.

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“It’s just so great, I haven’t realized it yet,” Pierce said after the match. “I’m happy, this has been a goal for me this year. I’ll never forget this.”

In victory, Pierce thwarted for the moment Sanchez Vicario’s drive to be No. 1. Sanchez Vicario brooded after her loss to Steffi Graf in the final here last year. Beating Graf in the U.S. Open final in September did little to erase the memory.

Sanchez Vicario, 23, knew this was her best chance of moving up. If she had won she would have automatically taken over Graf’s rank, which she has held since June 7, 1993. The pain of this loss might be lessened by this: Because Graf has withdrawn from a tournament in Tokyo next week with a leg injury, Sanchez Vicario will overtake Graf on Feb. 6.

“It is no consolation,” Sanchez Vicario said of the imminent ranking change. “It would be nicer if I would be able to win here. But I worked hard to be No. 1, I think I deserve a little bit, too.”

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Pierce will rise to her highest ranking ever, No. 3. She also becomes the first French woman to win a Grand Slam title since Francoise Durr won the French Open in 1967.

Pierce frequently looked for support from her group in the players’ box. It included coach Sven Groeneveld but did not include her guru Nick Bollettieri, who had abruptly returned to the United States before her semifinal match against Conchita Martinez.

Pierce thanked all her coaches and made a special note of thanking Bollettieri, “Wherever he is.”

Also absent, but unmentioned, was Pierce’s father, Jim, who is banned from attending tennis events because of his abusive behavior toward his daughter and others. The story of Jim Pierce stalking his daughter has, until now, superseded anything Pierce has accomplished on the court.

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Before winning here, Pierce was known as a player who made finals but didn’t win. She was in five finals last year but her last victory came in 1993.

Winning a Grand Slam event might end those references.

Before his departure, Bollettieri’s advice to Pierce was to be patient and be prepared to hit more shots than usual. Pierce implemented the strategy well.

In that, she was aided by Sanchez Vicario’s 30 unforced errors. Most of those came when Sanchez Vicario was going for a winner: Her topspin forehand clipped the net with frequency and her backhand betrayed her by flying long and wide all afternoon.

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The victory over Sanchez Vicario couldn’t have been sweeter for Pierce, who was beaten by her in straight sets in the French Open final last year.

“The difference is today, mentally, I was very calm and focused and I concentrated on every point,” Pierce said. “At the French Open, I was very nervous. I think that final helped me a lot. I learned from it, so I wouldn’t do that again.

“It was important for me not to look at who was on the other side of the net. It was so weird. Even when I had two match points, I wasn’t nervous at all.”

The match began on a horrendous note. Neither player could hold her serve until Pierce did in the fifth game. Pierce broke in the eighth and held serve to win the set.

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The pattern repeated. Pierce broke to open the second set and Sanchez Vicario broke back in the second game. The players stayed on serve until Pierce broke in the fifth game and broke Sanchez Vicario again in a disastrous seventh game, which the Spaniard lost at love.

Pierce served for the match at 40-15 and put away a backhand winner to close it out.

Sanchez Vicario quickly pinpointed her problem.

“First, I didn’t serve well at the beginning of the match and she took advantage of that,” she said. “I didn’t serve well enough to be able to win my serve. She takes more control than other players. She puts a lot of pressure (on opponents). She hits the ball hard.”

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Pierce, who won $360,000, lived up to her reputation as a player with temperament. The chair umpire did not apparently hear Pierce’s swearing, but the words were audible to the crowds on the occasions she became angered by a line call.

Pierce had received warnings in previous matches for taking too much time before her serve and in today’s match she exhibited the kind of gamesmanship that had prompted Martinez to say that Pierce annoys other players, because “she makes a lot of theater.”


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