TENNIS; Teen-Agers on Center Court, Fathers on Center Stage
May 31, 1992
New York Times
PARIS, May 30— Each is the apple of her father's eye, a reflection of his dedication and devotion, a monument to his belief that he has made all the right moves, pulled all the right strings and created a one-woman tennis dynasty.
Stefano Capriati, father of 16-year-old Jennifer, and Jim Pierce, father of 17-year-old Mary, are their daughters' perennial coaches and unofficial shadows. They carry the racquets, broker the million-dollar deals, worry about the rankings and don't always remember that the youngsters they have groomed for greatness might have teen-age agendas of their own.
In the gossipy and second-guess-filled tennis world, the fathers, neither one a shrinking violet, have become as famous as the daughters.
Friends in Florida
Back in Florida a decade ago, they traded training tips, and because Mary and Jennifer played in different ago groups -- with Jennifer doing the equivalent of skipping two grades -- they could be friendly rivals for the same pie in the sky.
Their roads diverged three years ago, but after each posted victories today, the sixth-ranked Capriati, the phenomenon who set tennis on its ear in 1990, and the 15th-ranked Pierce, the power hitter who has had to live down her father's reputation before getting a chance to develop her own, are meeting for the first time as professionals Sunday in the fourth round of the French Open.
Will the fathers remain on the sideline for this one?
Their daughters, particularly Pierce, surely hope so.
The Capriati clan settled in Florida and enjoyed the good graces of the United States Tennis Association, along with multimillion-dollar attention from a host of corporate sponsors, while the Pierce family, feeling ostracized, relocated to France, birthplace of Mary's mother. But their ponytailed offspring have plenty in common.
Lately, Capriati and Pierce, the players, have engaged in a cold war against Capriati and Pierce, the tennis dads. The players want less intervention and more independence; the dads insist they're trying to oblige.
"Mary is hard on me; I've seen her refuse to play a point just because she's mad at me, but I don't mind so long as she's as hard on the girls she plays as she is on me," said Pierce, who has also been chastised by the Women's Tennis Association for his inability to keep quiet in the stands and earlier this week had a brief punching match with two Dutch spectators who baited him during his daughter's doubles match.
"And Jennifer's been doing the same thing, kicking her father's butt a little," said Pierce.
The Thrill Is Gone
Capriati's Cinderella story has been well documented; a professional at 13, she was a millionaire at 14, the youngest semifinalist in the history of both the French and the United States Opens, a cheerful child who has, in the last six months, suffered from separation anxiety when the circuit has taken her away from her schoolmates.
Pierce's tale is stranger still. Unable to get along with the U.S.T.A., which gave Jim Pierce the cold shoulder while embracing the Capriatis, her family moved to the south of France outside Nice at the request of the French federation.
In the last year, Pierce has done some catching up with Capriati. Now ranked a career-high 15th, she has a major contract with Ellesse, is negotiating with Mercedes-Benz and has won her first title.
"There's a little lack of confidence, but that comes with maturity, and once she's got it, she's RoboCop," said Jim Pierce. "The way Seles is dominating now is how Mary will dominate in the 90's."
Jennifer Capriati was delighted today to hear that Mary Pierce thought of their match as "the biggest one" of her career so far: "That's nice of her; I'll have to be on my toes."
Mary Pierce said she has never harbored jealousy toward her splashier contemporary. "It didn't matter if I did it as quickly as her," Pierce said of her climb toward the top.
Both players predicted an exciting match; neither father wanted to predict who would win it.
"I can remember going over to Stefano one day before Jennifer played and telling him it looked like she'd have an easy time," said Pierce, "and he looked at me and said, 'Oh, no, don't ever say that. You don't know what a woman is going to do out on the court until it's over.' "
Top-ranked MONICA SELES stayed on course in her pursuit of a third consecutive French Open championship by blitzing LORI McNEIL, 6-0, 6-1. The last woman to capture three consecutive titles here was Hilde Sperling in 1935-37. AKIKO KIJIMUTA of Japan, ranked 150th, drew the dubious honor of facing Seles in the Round of 16 on Sunday. GABRIELA SABATINI, seeded third, overwhelmed JULIE HALARD of France, 6-1, 6-3, to advance against PATRICIA HY of Canada. Fourth-seeded ARANTXA SANCHEZ VICARIO faces KIMIKO DATE of Japan, the only player outside the top 10 to defeat her in 1992, and second-seeded STEFFI GRAF will confront 10th-seeded JANA NOVOTNA.