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<b>Pierce prepares to play locally</b><br>posted 02/18/02

SARASOTA -- Mary Pierce has played all over the world as a professional tennis player. In April, Pierce will discover what it's like to play a tournament in her hometown.

"It will be weird," Pierce said Saturday, shortly after a training session at Sarasota High. "I don't think I've ever played a tournament and slept in my bed at home. It will definitely be interesting."

Pierce, a two-time winner of Grand Slam tournaments who resides in Sarasota, has entered the $140,000 Sarasota Open, a Women's Tennis Association tournament that will be played April 1-7 at The Meadows Country Club. She has been given a wild card into the draw by tournament director Rob Coseo and adds to a field that is already the strongest for a tournament its size.

"I am definitely looking forward to the tournament and I'm very excited to be playing here at home," Pierce said. "I am really grateful for the wild card."

Pierce, who won the French Open title in 2000 and the Australian Open crown in 1995, joins a field that already included three players ranked in the top 25. Meghann Shaughnessy (No. 12), Barbara Schett (20) and Lisa Raymond (22), who is also ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles, had earlier committed to the tournament.

This past week, the entry list grew with new entries and now includes two gold exempt players -- Shaughnessy and Daja Bedanova -- as well as 20 silver exempt players (players ranked between No. 17 and 50).

Currently, 17 players ranked in the top 50 have entered the tournament, a Tier IV event on the WTA calendar that includes the four grand slams, as well as events that range from Tier I (largest prize money) to Tier V. The field for the Sarasota event also includes three players who have Grand Slam tournament titles. In addition to Pierce, Conchita Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994 and Iva Majoli won the French Open in 1997.

Among the players to enter last week are Anna Smashnova, who has already won two tournaments this year. Also entering were two players who got to the semifinals of tournaments last week before losing Saturday. Patty Schnyder, now ranked No. 42, lost in three sets to Justine Henin in Antwerp, Belgium, and Alicia Molik (No. 54) lost 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 to Sarasota's Monica Seles in Qatar.

The Sarasota Open will be the first tournament Pierce will play since retiring with a pulled abdomen muscle in the first game of her first match in the Australian Open. Pierce had missed the majority of last year with ankle and back injuries.

Once ranked No. 3 in the world, Pierce's ranking has slipped to 253 because of numerous injuries. She says she is dedicating the next six weeks to training hard and getting in the best shape of her life. She explained that picking Sarasota as her comeback tournament was a "no-brainer" for several reasons.

"I decided to play in Sarasota because of date and time," she said.

"And I wanted to come back in a smaller-tier event, so this is a perfect-sized tournament and it is perfect timing. And it is right here in Sarasota."

Pierce, 27, has won 15 singles titles and 9 doubles titles since making her pro debut at the age of 14. She has been to four grand slam singles finals and has also won a French Open doubles title with Martina Hingis. Pierce has earned more than $6 million.

"It is an honor to have a four-time grand slam finalist in the tournament," Coseo said. "She is internationally recognized and to have a Sarasota resident supporting a Sarasota event, we couldn't be more proud.

"We are looking forward to Mary using Sarasota as a springboard to the rest of the clay season and hopefully repeat performance in Paris of what she did in 2000 by winning the French Open.

Pierce agrees with that plan.

The tournament field will consist of 24 players by direct entry, four wild cards and four players who will advance to the main draw through a qualifying tourney. The entry deadline for players is today.
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