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″Hotshot Mary” Seeks Magic Again

January 16, 1996

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ It must mean something when a fan with a spiky mohawk has ``Mary″ written in blue block letters on both sides of his head, ``Pierce″ on both his muscular arms, and he’s waving a sign that reads: ``Sexy Hotshot Mary.″

Is it crazy love or sick infatuation, something to be appreciated, laughed at, or feared?

In an age of celebrity stalkers, in the aftermath of the Monica Seles stabbing, security guards at the Australian Open looked at that fan Tuesday night with wary eyes.

Pierce, the defending champion, took a more benign attitude, taking it as flattery and autographing the fan’s sign.

``It’s pretty interesting here,″ Pierce said after a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Petra Schwarz. ``It’s a young crowd and I like that because they really get into the matches and yell and clap and have fun.″

For Pierce, it was another indication that she’s ``arrived,″ become more than just a tennis player. She became a Grand Slam champ here a year ago, a star.

Yet, even as she pursues another title, and some fans pursue her, Pierce is trying to figure out where the magic went the rest of 1995.

She won the Australian, then, poof, she vanished. Lost in the fourth round at the French, second round at Wimbledon, third round at the U.S. Open. A year of promise evaporated into a year of puzzling losses.

She couldn’t explain what happened, and she couldn’t really make excuses. No serious injuries, no personal problems. She couldn’t blame her coach or her father. When the year was over, she simply had to face up to the reality that she had to build on her success, not rest on it.

Pierce’s game had been as subtle as a train wreck. She pounded with two-fisted backhands and one-handed forehands. And if that didn’t work, she pounded the ball harder. When she was on, as she was at the Australian last year, she could beat anyone in straight sets. In the final here, she did it to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

But that style, ultimately, would wear down Pierce, tire her out as the year dragged on, and make her too predictable. She had to add to her repertoire the delicacy of drops and lobs and the surprise of the odd overhead or volley. She had to shorten some points, not keep them going forever with side-to-side groundstrokes.

In her return to Center Court a day after turning 21, Pierce showed she was beginning to learn that lesson. Schwarz, wasn’t exactly a major threat, having lost in the opening round here four times before, but Pierce used the occasion to demonstrate the new variety in her game.

``I’ve been trying to come into the net a lot more, serve wide a bit and, if I hit a good shot, to come in,″ Pierce said. ``On a second serve, to hit a good return and come in. And I’ve been trying to mix up the drop shots so the girls don’t get used to my pace and start to get into a groove. So that’s my game now, trying to play a little bit smarter and with more variety.

``It makes it easier for me, instead of just pounding and pounding.″

Whether Pierce will have the courage to use her new shots against an opponent like Monica Seles remains to be seen. It’s one thing to fool around with no pressure against a mistake-prone player like Schwarz, another to do it in the later rounds against tougher players. At times like that, there’s a tendency to revert to habit.

Pierce also showed she may have conquered another problem she’s had _ the inclination to give up on balls she thinks may be just out of her reach. That has cost her points and matches.

On one point on this cool, windy evening, Schwarz angled a soft backhand drop shot crosscourt that looked like a winner. Pierce charged in from the baseline and scooped it up with a backhand. Schwarz pounced on that shot with a forehand volley, but instead of backing off, Pierce lunged for a forehand volley winner that gave her a 5-2 lead in the first set.

Pierce’s role model for such intensity may be none other than Seles, three times a champion here and a possible opponent for Pierce in the final.

``She has a very strong mental attitude,″ Pierce said. ``She’s just a very tough competitor.″

It’s exactly that kind of attitude, that sort of toughness, Pierce needs to become a champion again.

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