NEW YORK: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, once one of tennis’ hottest talents before being engulfed by heartbreaking personal trauma, reached her first Grand Slam last-16 in 15 years Friday, describing it as the best day of her life.
Now 32 years old, Lucic-Baroni had the world at her feet when she was a teenager.
In 1997, she made her US Open debut at just 15 and at the same age, she teamed with Martina Hingis to win the 1998 Australian Open women’s doubles.
In 1999, at 17, she went to the Wimbledon semi-finals where it took Steffi Graf to beat her.
But always in the background was tough, demanding father Marinko who, Lucic-Baroni later revealed, dished out regular beatings although he described them as “slaps” that were “best for the child”.
Eventually, in desperation, Mirjana, her mother Andelka and four siblings fled their Croatia home in the dead of night for the sanctuary of the United States.
The drama, however, put the brakes on a journey which should have led to fame and fortune as severe financial problems left her career in cold storage.
Instead, Lucic-Baroni disappeared from professional tennis for most of the 2003-2010 period before slowly feeling her way back.
And after stunning world number two Simona Halep 7-6 (8/6), 6-2 on Friday to reach her first last-16 at a major since her 1999 Wimbledon run, she was overcome as she faced the media, breaking down in floods of tears.
“It’s been really hard. Sorry. After so many years to be here again, it’s incredible. I wanted this so bad,” said the German-born, 5ft 11in (1.81m) blonde.
“I feel like I’m born again. This is the best day of my life.”
Her return to the tour in 2010 saw her finish the year at 105 in the world and 2013 saw her at 104, her best ranking since 1999 when she finished at 50.
“I fought my way, I didn’t get wildcards. I played quallies of every not-awesome $25,000 event everywhere in the world. I worked my way back and I earned it,” recalled Lucic who married in 2011.
“Then I got to the Grand Slams, I wanted it so bad that when I would get my chance on a big court against a big player I wanted it so bad that I was kind of paralyzed. I couldn’t do it.
“It was always like, OK, how many more do I have? I have to do it now. I have to do it now. I finally relaxed I said, Just play tennis.
“When I was so young and I was so good and I was winning so much that it wasn’t a big deal. It was just a natural progression. And now it’s just amazing. Every round is amazing.
“I feel goofy right now. I feel like I’m 15 now. I feel so excited. It’s crazy. I’m 32.”
Lucic-Baroni, now ranked at 121 in the world, had to come through qualifying to make the main draw, arriving in New York on an eight-match losing streak.
On Friday, she fired 31 winners past Halep, her junior by 10 years, as she set up a fourth round clash against Italian 13th seed Sara Errani.
“She played really well,” said Halep. “I was 5-2 up and had set points but she came back well and everything was working.
“She’s a good player. She’s tall, serves well and she deserved to win.”
Lucic-Baroni believes she has plenty of life lessons to pass on to today’s teenage generation.
“Coaches and agents and everybody wants more success always. Especially for young girls you still have to realize you’re a little kid and you still have to want to improve,” she said.