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This Mary Turns Quite Contrary in Defeat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scary thought: Andre Agassi is contagious.

How else to explain the behavior, on and off the court, of Mary Pierce? Both players attended the same Florida tennis academy and had as their early guru the same coach. Both players are outfitted by the same cutting-edge apparel company, much to the chagrin of tennis’ fashion police.

Both are big-hitting and fast-talking. Both are advised by Brad Gilbert, the canny former top 10 player Pierce calls “very wise.” And both have been eliminated from the French Open.

Pierce, seeded No. 12, was defeated in the third round by Barbara Rittner on Friday. The unseeded German, ranked No. 82, won, 6-4, 6-2, and disappointed French fans by knocking out the highest-ranked French player at Roland Garros.

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Or were they? Pierce was whistled and booed as she stormed off the center court, much as Agassi was when he lost in the second round Wednesday.

Unlike Agassi, Pierce did speak to reporters after the match. Agassi was fined when he skipped the news conference; Pierce was nearly fined for her comments during the news conference. The 21-year-old refused to provide any analysis of her match, but when pressed, offered, ". . . happens.”

Stuff always seems to happen to Pierce, whose life on and off the court has been tempestuous. All of her demons surface in Paris, where expectations are high and tolerance for her American-style antics is low.

There’s no pleasing the French fans, who love to claim the Florida-raised Pierce as their own--when she wins. After she won the 1995 Australian Open, Pierce came into Roland Garros last year as a national heroine. When she was beaten in the fourth round, and whined about being injured, her French fans clucked derisively.

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The problem is that she’s not French enough for them, even if she wins more than any other French player. Pierce’s mother is French, and she chose the flag of convenience because her family believed the then-teenager was not getting enough support from the U.S. Tennis Assn.

Pierce’s estranged father, Jim, is banned from tennis because of a pattern of violence and abuse toward his daughter and other players and officials.

The citizenship change in 1990 meant that Pierce was eligible to represent France in the Fed Cup, but that has been a problem this season. Pierce said she could not play in April because she had an elbow injury. Yet she played the next week in a tour event.

After hovering at No. 5 for the last two seasons, Pierce’s ranking has dropped to No. 14, its lowest in five years. Her longtime coach, Nick Bollettieri, dumped her after this year’s Australian Open, questioning her fitness and dedication to practice.

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Pierce then aligned herself with Gilbert, who has been coaching Agassi exclusively. She chose Gilbert’s friend, Joe Guiliano, as her traveling coach and hitting partner. Since then she has spoken glowingly of Gilbert, but her results have been mixed.

As Agassi did in his losing match here, Pierce sprayed forehands around the court and tried to beat her opponent with power rather than finesse. Also Agassi-like was Pierce’s lack of movement on the court, while Rittner covered a lot of ground.

Pierce had 34 unforced errors, mostly on the forehand side. As she continued to hit herself into trouble, Pierce stubbornly clung to her hard-court game plan and became very erratic.

Rittner gained confidence and made her move at 4-4 in the first set.

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“I took the first chance,” Rittner said. “Which was probably the most important thing in the match. Then she got nervous and I started to play better. Then it was a pretty easy second set.”

Pierce was clearly frustrated, and the fans jeered and whistled. It was the same reception she received at the Paris indoor tournament in February. After that, Pierce said, “If they are behind me or not, I don’t give a damn.”

As Pierce left the court Friday, it was a startling sight to see a French crowd boo a French athlete and cheer for a German.

Pierce’s behavior in the news conference did nothing to polish her reputation. She was surly, curt and refused to answer most questions. When she did respond it was, “What can I say?” “I don’t know,” or, “That’s a stupid question.”

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Her longest response gave some insight to her pain at the loss.

“It’s too hard to explain, really,” she said of her feelings. “I’m very disappointed, very disgusted and upset. I just wish I could go to bed tonight and get ready to practice tomorrow and wake up the next day and have another match to play.”

No doubt those are Agassi’s sentiments too.


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