The Love Game

updated 09/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1992 01:00AM

HE FIDGETS. HE TWITCHES. HE YELLS obscenities and bullies spectators. Ex-Marine Jim Pierce's courtside antics have become one of the most talked about sideshows in tennis, and he's not even a competitor. It's his daughter, Mary Pierce, who plays—and prays her father won't do anything she can't live down. An inch shy of six feet with the rangy good looks of a young Daryl Hannah, Mary, 17, goes to the U.S. Open this week as the No. 16 women's player in the world, poised to make an assault on the Top 10.

To do so, though, she'll have to overcome not only her opponents but also her father's often intemperate outbursts. "Sure, I holler for Mary," says Pierce, 56. "I don't know if you want to call it a wake-up call or rooting for people you like. People pick on me because I'm the father. But nobody's more concerned about her success than me."

That may be true, but in a sport known for daddies who pose unwanted distractions—Steffi Graf's game was thrown off for months when her father was falsely accused of having sired an out-of-wedlock child—Jim Pierce is the mother of all tennis fathers. After Mary lost in the second round at the Olympics in Barcelona this summer, Pierce went into a rage and totaled his rental car. In May he decked three spectators during the French Open after they provoked him by applauding her errors. Still, the family—including mother Yannick, 42, and brother David, 16—circles the wagons in his defense as it travels the circuit in search of more winnings. (Mary has won $251,413 since turning pro in 1989.) "He's not that bad. Everybody gets mad," says Mary, who is quiet and soft-spoken. "He's tough, but I think it's better that way. You need to have somebody pushing you."

That Mary has tremendous talent—a booming forehand and a blistering return—often gets lost in the ink given to her volatile, voluble dad. "You're dealing with a big, strong athlete, which gives her an advantage over the majority of the girls," says Nick Bollettieri, who has nurtured, among others, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles at his Bradenton, Fla., academy, where the Pierces spend part of the year. "Once she hits the ball, it's tough to reach.

Pierce took up tennis at age 10, when the family was living in Largo, Fla. A natural talent, she won the U.S. Tennis Association's championship in her age group two years later. When Mary was 13, her parents yanked her out of junior high so she could concentrate on her game. And although he had no tennis training, her father quit his job as a jewelry designer to be her coach. But as the tournaments got tougher, his behavior got rougher. During one junior match Pierce yelled, "Mary, kill the bitch!" And his run-in with officials at the highly regarded Harry Hopman/Saddlebrook tennis school in Florida caused Mary to lose her scholarship there.

In 1989, fed up with the U.S. Tennis Association, which he claims had not provided enough financial backing, Pierce moved the family to Villeneuve-Louvet, France. Because her mother is French-born and Mary has dual citizenship, her father was able to cut a deal with the French Tennis Federation that allowed Mary to play on France's Olympic and Federation Cup teams in exchange for financial support. For Mary, whose French was minimal and who left many friends behind, the move was difficult. "I really didn't understand why we had to leave," she says.

But leaving the U.S. may have been the career boost Mary needed. In 1991 she won a clay court tournament in Italy, which led to a $1 million endorsement contract with the Ellesse clothing company. Since then her game has been steadily improving, thanks, in part, to her father's fitness regime. "She used to come off the court after 2½ hours soaking wet and wanting to go eat," says Pierce. "I'd hand her her running shoes and make her run two miles."

Such commands have at times driven Mary to the breaking point. She has forfeited matches by walking off the court. "He would be yelling at me, and I would feel like, 'I'm trying so hard and I'm not doing good enough.' "

She says she has outgrown all that now and has learned to live with her father's demands. "When I lose, he kind of feels like he lost himself. That's why he gets so mad," she says. "But I think he wants the best for me. If I wasn't happy, we wouldn't make all the sacrifices we've had to make."

KIM CUNNINGHAM
DON SIDER in Bradenton

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