Pierce has game to win 'American' prize

If Mary Pierce had chosen to play under the red, white and blue, her popularity might have hit Lindsay Davenport or Jennifer Capriati proportions in the United States.

But the two-time Grand Slam champion decided to play for France a long time ago, despite the fact that she grew up in the U.S. and still has a home in Florida.

In June, Pierce was again embraced by France after her inspiring and wholly unanticipated run to the French Open final. She's a huge celebrity there, but in the United States, she still flies slightly under the radar.

Two weeks ago, when she flew back to the U.S. to train in Bradenton, Fla., she wasn't mobbed at the airport. She didn't get to dance with Destiny's Child at the ESPYs like American Serena Williams. She didn't get a TV reality show like the Williams sisters. And she didn't have girl-next-door essays penned in her honor like Davenport.

"It's been interesting," said the 30-year-old Pierce, who is playing this week at the Acura Classic. "I went through a period where a lot of people would recognize me, and then when I had injures and my ranking dropped, not as many people did. Now it seems like a lot more people recognize me.

"But I never needed the attention. When you first win a Grand Slam, you don't like it. It was kind of weird because you feel like you are losing your privacy. You feel like an animal in a cage in a zoo. Everyone is staring at you and you don't understand why. Now it's different. I love to talk to people. There was a girl who headed to the [Nick Bollettieri] academy at the airport who wanted to ask me some questions and I thought it was great.

"I see things completely differently now. If someone asks me a question, that says they appreciate what I do and that's nice. And I know what it was like when I was a kid to want to interact with a top player."

If you forget for a moment her choice to play for the French Fed Cup team and her dual French-U.S. citizenship (her mother is French and her father is American), Pierce is the highest-ranked player (No. 14) in the Acura Classic draw in San Diego this week.

Davenport, Serena and Capriati are all injured and Venus is taking a week off. Three Russians -- U.S. Open defending champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, finalist Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova -- are the tournament's top seeds. Belgium's Kim Clijsters, who won the Bank of the West Classic Sunday in resounding fashion, is the fourth seed and tournament favorite.

Of the eight American women in the 56-player draw, only one, 31-year-old Lisa Raymond, is ranked within the top 50 at No. 47. None of those eight Americans are young enough or promising enough to be called true up-and-comers, which leaves Pierce as the sole "American" with a decent chance of making a major impact at this U.S. Open Series event.

In fact, Pierce might be the only one capable of going all the way in New York. Capriati is out until at least October with a shoulder injury, Davenport is out of the Acura with a troubling back injury and Serena only started hitting this week after battling an ankle injury.

Pierce has never been a great outdoor hard-court player. Still, she showed in wins over Vera Zvonareva, Patty Schnyder, Davenport and Elena Likhovtseva en route to the Roland Garros final (she was smoked by Justine Henin-Hardenne in the final), that she's a prime-time contender on any surface. At Wimbledon, she held her own against eventual champ Venus Williams in a quarterfinal loss. She then scored a Fed Cup win for France, which is back in the final again.

"Someone came up the other day and said to me that the last two matches I lost were to the two winners of the Grand Slams and I said -- that's not too bad,"
Pierce said.

Not at all.

Even though she has never won an American hard-court title, Pierce has to be one of the favorites for the U.S. Open crown. Her best Open result was when she lost a classic three-setter to Davenport in the 1999 quarterfinals.

After a series of debilitating injuries, Pierce will never be a burner on court, but she has become a very smart player. She hits a clean, hard ball, uses a competent volley to keep points short and has a big serve.

If Pierce can get on a run this summer, a mini-miracle could await in New York. Making a run at the Acura Classic, where she is the sixth seed, would be a good place to start.

"If I play my best, I've shown I can beat almost everybody, but I've never done that great at the Open," Pierce said. "It seems like it's a tougher tournament for me to get through. But of course I'd love to. I'd like to have (a trophy) from there."

Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.