Every bit a challenge Pierce is paired with Sanchez Vicario in event headliner

Mary Pierce is jetting in from a day of sponsor appearances in Paris, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is winging over on the Concorde from Spain for tonight's Signet Bank Tennis Challenge.

It is the 10th year for the event at the Baltimore Arena that has earned approximately $1.5 million for children's charities. And Pam Shriver, the creator and driving force behind the event, wants this one to be special.


Tonight's lineup certainly is.

World No. 2 Sanchez Vicario vs. No. 4 Pierce in a three-set singles match; Ilie Nastase and Shriver against Tracy Austin and Johan Kriek in the legends mixed doubles; and Cal Ripken teamed with Sanchez Vicario against Orioles teammate Brady Anderson and Pierce in the all-star mixed doubles.


"The crowd wants to see one hard-fought match," said Shriver. "And I think Arantxa and Mary are very evenly matched. Neither )) of them has been here before, so it will give local tennis fans a chance to see two of the best up close."

The three-set match is for charity, but this is indeed a showdown. Pierce and Sanchez Vicario have met twice this year, both times in finals. At the Australian Open, Pierce won, 6-3, 6-2, for her first Grand Slam title. On Sept. 18 in Tokyo, Pierce beat Sanchez Vicario again, 6-3, 6-3.

Pierce has won three of the past four meetings, though Sanchez Vicario still leads the overall series, 4-3.

"You know, I've beaten Arantxa every time I've played her this year," said Pierce, who only trails co-No. 1's Steffi Graf and Seles, No. 2 Sanchez Vicario and No. 3 Conchita Martinez. "And Conchita, I beat in Australia and lost in San Diego. Steffi, I've beaten and lost to, and Monica, I haven't played since she's come back."

At the U.S. Open, Graf noted that against Pierce, "You still don't know if she is going to be on her game or off on any given day." Sure enough, Pierce was upset in the third round by unseeded Amy Frazier.

Since then, however, she has won at Tokyo, made it to the finals in Zurich and to the quarterfinals in Filderstadt, Germany, Oct. 9.

"It's been a great year for me," said Pierce. "I started the year a lot better than I expected, winning my first Grand Slam in Australia."

But then came a letdown, an illness, an injury, a disappointing second-round loss at Wimbledon.


Shriver speculates that one of the things Pierce has learned about is dealing with success.

"Success definitely changes your life," Shriver said. "To win a Grand Slam tennis tournament for the first time, the pressure and demands that come with that take their toll. I know I felt that when I went to the U.S. Open finals [at age 16], even though I didn't win.

"I think you can see that in what happened to both Mary, after winning Australia, and Conchita, after she won Wimbledon. They were in their late teens, early 20s, and it took awhile for them to be able to live with themselves. . . . But after a while you get a little perspective."

Pierce is working on it.

"I think it's been my best year because I have learned a lot on the court about my tennis and off the court, getting to know myself. . . . You grow up. I mean going from 19 to 20 to 21, it's really years when you're becoming more of an adult and just learning to know yourself."

And she knows that while tonight's match does not count in the computer rankings, it does count in terms of being able to maintain a certain level of play.


"Definitely consistency is the thing for me," Pierce said. "But I'm not going to be nervous or feel any pressure for this match, though I definitely want to play well. I want to have fun, too. I'm going to do things I've been practicing -- like coming into the net more."

Easy to say, but Shriver said it is a funny thing about that.

"Every year the players who come here talk about working on new things," she said. "Then, they get into the match and the competitiveness in them takes over and they wind up doing the things they do best. I'm sure these two are going to get very competitive."

Tennis tonight

Signet Bank Challenge

Site: Baltimore Arena


Time: 7

CTickets: Available for $25, $17.50 and $9 at the door or by calling (410) 481-SEAT.

TV: HTS, tape delay, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Benefit: Baltimore Community Foundation.