Breaking Away

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"IT'S SIMPLE," EXPLAINS WARY PIERCE. "I think fun is the main word. My life off the court has changed. I'm feeling good inside, so I guess it shows on the outside too."

Yes, it does. Those who remember the hollow-eyed teenager who would freeze, anxiety-stricken, during matches would scarcely have recognized the Mary Pierce who breezed into the French Open tennis tournament last month. Off the court she strolled through Montmartre and ate ice cream along the Champs-Elysées like a carefree tourist. On court, the 5'11" 19-year-old in an elegant tennis dress playfully bulled balls off her head between points. But the greatest change was in her play, as Pierce swept to the finals with stunning efficiency—losing only 10 games and shocking defending champion Steffi Graf in straight sets—before finally losing to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.

The French would call it libération. Last June, after enduring years of his abuse, Mary Pierce fired her father, Jim Pierce, as her coach, and several months later signed on with tennis guru Nick Bollettieri. "She no longer lets herself be subjected to pressure from her entourage," her mother, Yannick, told the French newspaper l'Equipe, "and she's no longer afraid of the consequences of losing." And so she is winning. This week, as Wimbledon, tennis's second grand-slam event, gels under way, Pierce is seeded No. 7, as well as ranked No. 7 in the world—up from 14 a year ago.

The end of the Jim Pierce era came at last year's French Open. A day before the third round he became enraged and attacked Mary's 22-year-old cousin Olivier, who was bantering with her as they scouted a future opponent. Then in the middle of Mary's third-round match, Jim began screaming at his daughter from the stands after she dropped a set to a lower-ranked player. This eruption resulted in his ejection from the stadium. A month later, he was banned from the tour for the remainder of the year by the Women's Tennis Council, which invoked a new edict—since dubbed the Jim Pierce rule—that lets the organization bar disruptive members of a player's entourage.

"It was an accumulation of things over the past four or five years," says Mary. "You know, things keep boiling up and get to a point where you just can't take it anymore."

Jim Pierce did not go quietly. Last summer, Mary, Yannick (who had begun divorce proceedings) and Mary's brother, David, 18, were forced to hire bodyguards when Jim began hailing them through France and Italy. He lurked outside tournaments and once, said Yannick, tried to steal their passports from her purse in an airport in Corsica. In July, Jim attacked one of their friends with a knife in an Italian hotel while his daughter cowered in the hotel bathroom. BY the end of summer, the threesome took action. Citing "terroristic threats" Mary said her father had made, she obtained restraining orders against him in cities where she was scheduled to play. Jim, she wrote in one restraining order, had warned her, "If you think there was a nut in Waco, you haven't seen anything yet.

Pierce was more candid than he perhaps meant to be. In 1993 tennis writer Cindy Hahn reported that Jim Pierce was actually Bobby Glenn Pearce, a cashiered Marine who had served nearly five years in prison between 1959 and 1964 for attempted robbery. During that time, Pearce was admitted to the psychiatric prison ward of New York City's Bellevue Hospital after a court-appointed physician found he had "schizophrenic and paranoid tendencies."

After his release in 1904, Pearce bummed around New York City, Miami and Los Angeles for 10 years. In 1973 he was arrested for possession of stolen properly in Miami. Jumping bail, he fled to Montreal to join a French exchange student, Yannick Adjani, whom he had met in Miami Beach. (Not until 1984 did Pierce resolve the stolen property charge with a plea bargain and a fine of $1,054.) Mary was born in January 1975, and the couple married later that year.

Soon afterward, the family moved to Hollywood, Fla., where Jim began working as a custom jeweler and jewelry salesman, using the name Jim Pierce. Not until Mary was 10 did Pierce discover that his daughter was a tennis prodigy: She beat the No. 20 local 12-and-under player just two weeks alter her father introduced her to the game. He immediately enrolled her in Harry Hopman's tennis academy in Bardmoor, Fla. Two years later she was ranked No. 2 in the country among 12-year-olds.

But Mary's talent also seemed to bring out the beast in her father. She has said that he slapped her after she lost a match or even if she had a bad practice. He forbade her to eat cake, candy or soda. "He was always very tough," she says now. "But the more and more I was winning, the better I was doing, the tougher he got."

When Mary was 12, Jim removed both his children from school so the family could travel with Mary on her busy schedule of junior tournaments. Pierce was openly abusive even then. At a tournament in 1987, when Mary was playing 12-year-old Magdalena Maleeva, he screamed, "Mary, kill the bitch!" The Florida Tennis Association responded by barring Pierce from its tournaments for six months.

In March 1989, Jim Pierce had Mary turn pro just three months after her 14th birthday. (She was, until the following year when the WTC allowed Jennifer Capriati to turn pro at 13, the youngest professional ever.) In 1990 the USTA stopped Mary's player-development funding because of her father's continuing boorishness, and he retaliated by moving the family to France, where Yannick and Mary had citizenship. There he cut a deal: Mary would receive funding from the French Tennis Federation in return for playing on the French Olympic; and Federation Cup teams. But the change in scenery didn't improve Jim Pierce's behavior. When Mary lost in the second round at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, he berated her so harshly that she ran crying to the locker room. Soon after, overcome by fury, Jim wrecked his rental car. By that time, Mary was beginning to ponder a break with her father. "I considered doing it before," she says, "but I was always wondering if it was the right time."

Ever since the split, Mary has found new enjoyment in life's mundane pleasures. "Just the general things that everybody gets to do," she says, "the things I was never allowed to do before: going to the movies, shopping with my girlfriends, talking to friends on the phone."

Damaged as their relationship has been, Mary still gives Jim credit for her success. "He pushed me hard every day. He gave me a tough mental attitude to keep fighting and a hard work ethic," she says. Last December she surprised Jim with a visit at his home in Delray Beach, Fla., for the first time since the family was fractured seven months earlier. "He's my father," she explains. "I just want to establish a relationship with him as father and daughter, not as a tennis coach. That's something that will take time."

Could Jim Pierce ever resume his place in his daughter's professional life? On that subject, Mary is adamant. "No," she says. "Never."

TERRY SMITH in London, CATHY NOLAN in Paris and DON SIDER in Miami

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