Despite not winning at the tournament since 1998, the Croatian star is making waves again
As the men’s tour relish in Roger Federer’s triumphant comeback from injury, the women also have their own version, but in a much darker form.
As a teenager Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was tipped as a future superstar. By the age of 14 she had already won two junior grand slam titles at the US and Australian Opens. The following year in 1997 she turned professional, claiming the Bol Open title in what was her first ever tournament on the WTA Tour. Three weeks later she reached the final at the Strasburg Open as a qualifier, losing to Steffi Graf.
The accolades Lucic-Baroni achieved before her 18th birthday are ones that some players can only dream of. In 1999, she achieved her best performance by reaching the semi-finals of the Wimbledon championships, where she defeated Monica Seles in the third round.
Prior to her Wimbledon run, the Croat also had a grand slam doubles title to her name, winning the 1998 Australian Open alongside Martina Hingis at the age of 15.
At the time, few knew about the turmoil she experienced away from the court. In the late 1990s, Lucic-Baroni spoke out about being physically and mentally abused by her father over a ten-year period.
''There have been more beatings than anyone can imagine,'' she told Croatian newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija in August 1998.
Together with her mother and siblings, Lucic-Baroni fled Croatia to America to escape her father. The search for a better life took its toll on her tennis career, both mentally and financially.
The hardships led to her halting her tennis dream in late 2003. Over the next two years she only played in two low-level ITF tournaments, losing in the first round at both. It seemed like her career was virtually over as she went through six seasons without playing in a grand slam tournament (2003-2009). That period of of her career is one that Lucic-Baroni wishes she could forget and even now, she is reluctant to talk about it.
“People think they know a lot about my history, but they really do not. One day when I feel like talking about it, I will. Right now is not that day.” She said earlier this week at the Australian Open. “But people think they know. They have no idea. A lot of the times when I hear, like, injuries and things, those were not the problems at all.”
Image: Croatia's Mirjana Lucic-Baroni celebrates defeating United States' Jennifer Brady in their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Lucic-Baroni’s determination to continue her tennis career began to reap its rewards in 2014. At the US Open, she defeated Simona Halep to reach the fourth round, her best ever performance at the event. Then a few weeks later she struck gold at the Coupe Banque International in Canada, lifting her first WTA title for 16 years. Finally, the teenage prodigy from the late 1990s was once again making waves in the women’s game.
“I am a tough little cookie and really stubborn, when I want something I will work hard and do anything I need to get it." She said.
Continuing to inspire many, the latest milestone in the Croat's turbulent career occurred in Melbourne at the Australian Open. Having not won a match at the tournament since 1998 prior to this year, many dismissed Lucic-Baroni’s chances. Then again, it is hard to predict something for somebody who has endured such a roller coaster life on the tour.
Knocking out Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round, the 34-year-old has progressed to the quarter-finals of the major tournament, achieving her best performance in a grand slam since her Wimbledon run of 1999. The defiance of Lucic-Baroni was in full display shortly after her fourth round win, when she was asked what advice she would give to other players.
"I can’t say on television or I’ll get fined,” she joked during her on-court interview. “(But) f*** everybody and everything who says you can’t do it and do it with your heart. I’m blessed. I had a rough patch in life early on but I’m really blessed with the family I have, blessed with the people I have around me.”
Lucic-Baroni will play fifth seed Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals in Melbourne on Wednesday. Regardless of the match outcome, she will finish draw as a winner, as she continues to turn a life filled with turmoil into one that inspires many around the world.