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Hingis gets Pierced in French Open semis

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000

PARIS -- Mary Pierce tortured her newfound fans with a meltdown at match point, then revived in time to give them what they wanted -- a Frenchwoman in the French Open final and a drubbing of Martina Hingis.

A year after both players were booed off court in separate soap operas at Roland Garros, Pierce found herself embraced as a national heroine by fans who, for the sake of claiming a French champion, are now happy to overlook her U.S. residence, American accent and Canadian birthplace.

''Ma-rie, Ma-rie,'' the fans chanted from start to finish as Pierce closed out a 6-4, 5-7, 6-2 upset Thursday of the top-seeded Hingis to reach Saturday's final against Spain's Conchita Martinez, a 6-1, 6-2 victor over three-time champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

The 2-hour, 10-minute match in 81-degree heat took its toll on Pierce, whose legs began cramping in the third set. Shortly after leaving the court, Pierce's whole body cramped up and she couldn't sit down. She was given rehydration fluids intravenously and came in for a news conference three hours after the match.

''I never had cramps before,'' Pierce said. ''It just came all of a sudden at 4-2 in the third set. I ran over and hit a backhand. I fell to the ground almost. I really had a big cramp in my left calf. Then it stopped, and I got back up, kept playing the point. ... (Afterward) I was having cramps all over. For one and half hours I had to walk. There was nothing I could do.''

Pierce will be playing in her fourth Grand Slam tournament final. She lost in the French final in 1994, won the Australian Open in 1995 and finished runner-up at the Australian in 1997. Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994 and was runner-up at the Australian in 1998 in her only other major final.

Though Pierce has played for France in Fed Cup matches since her first year as a pro in 1990, she has had a fragile relationship with French fans, who have alternately booed and cheered her through the years during her frequently shaky performances here. Last year, when Pierce lost in the second round in a lackluster match against Martinez, the crowd booed her vigorously.

Yet all that seems forgotten as Pierce, whose French connection is her mother's French origins, seeks to become France's first woman champion since Francoise Durr in 1967. The last Frenchman to win at Roland Garros was Yannick Noah in 1983.

With that drought in the background, and with the memory of Hingis' temper tantrums in the final against Steffi Graf last year, the fans embraced Pierce adoringly this time and helped her rally whenever she struggled.

French president Jacques Chirac joined the national delight over Pierce by sending her a handwritten note.

''A thousand bravos for this superb semifinal,'' Chirac said. ''Power, speed and intelligence allowed you to impose your game on Martina Hingis. All my hopes for success accompany you in this final, your second at the French Open, and I'm sure that all French people will be on your side Saturday.''

Hingis drew her share of boos, especially when she bounced her racket on the court or questioned calls, but the fans were not nearly as vicious toward her as they were last year. Yet Hingis, 19, once more will leave the French without the one major title she needs to complete a career Grand Slam.

''I don't need the French Open to survive,'' she said, with no tears in her eyes this time. ''There are many other players who have never won this tournament. I have a lot of years in front of me. Pierce and Martinez, they never won this tournament. One of them is going to win. One is 25 and the other is 28. I have nothing to worry about right now.''

Never did Pierce need the fans' help more than at the start of the third set after she tightened up badly while serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set. Pierce lost her serve at love, wasted a match point on Hingis' serve in the next game with a backhand long, lost her serve at love again, blew a break point against Hingis with a wild shot on a wide-open court, then finally lost the set.

''It was nervousness,'' Pierce said. ''I wanted to finish it off. I was nervous, she was nervous, and I made faults.''

A low rumbling coursed through the stadium as fans feared Pierce was about to fall apart completely. Yet if Pierce was worried, she didn't show it. She sat calmly through the changeover, mopped her face with a towel, adjusted the knot in her headband and strode out to serve.

''I was contemplating suicide in the third set,'' she said with a laugh. ''No, I tried not to get upset. I just kept thinking that was a chance I let slip. I tried to stay calm. I just learned from other matches, whenever I get nervous, whenever I start to get tight, usually I lose. I learned to stay relaxed and not worry.''

And just like that, she was back in the match, drilling balls deep again as she had in the first set and most of the second, and driving a backhand down the line to win the first game at love.

Pierce and Hingis are doubles partners, but in this match they put their friendship aside and attacked each other's weaknesses. For Pierce, it meant moving toward the net, trying to be aggressive. For Hingis, it meant trying to keep Pierce running side to side. For both of them, it meant coping with the vagaries of the warm, gusty breezes that played havoc with balls throughout this often-sloppy match.

''Sometimes you have to forget that you're playing against friends,'' Pierce said. ''I want to win, she wants to win. This is nothing personal.''

Hingis held to 1-1, but the tension of the match, the way she had trouble dealing with the wind, was wearing on her nerves. She had lost her smile early in the second set, had bounced her racket on the court, kicked it and slapped it several times, drawing hoots and whistles from the crowd each time. Now when she lost an exchange at the net against Pierce and a chance to put her in a hole on her serve, Hingis showed her temper again by cracking the head of her racket on the court. Once more there were boos, and this time an umpire's warning as she changed rackets.

From that moment on, Hingis was never quite the same. She double-faulted twice in dropping serve to fall behind 3-1, and was broken in her last two service games as the crowd kept chanting, ''Ma-rie, Ma-rie.''



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