Every Grand Slam event begins with 256 stories, evenly divided between the men’s and women’s singles players. Some of those stories are stock material—the overnight sensation, the local hero—while others are more subtle and still others are overlooked, or don’t command the attention they deserve.

Talking to Tracy Austin on the phone about a different subject the other day, I was reminded of one of those stories, one that lasted the entire first week of the U.S. Open, but that I had somehow never gotten around to absorbing or thinking about in my rush to take care of other things. When we got to talking about the tournament, Tracy volunteered that the best story was that of 32-year-old Croatian Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.

It’s mildly astonishing that the two best stories at Flushing Meadows could well have been the handiwork of Croatians. I was all over one of them, men’s champion Marin Cilic, and I missed the other and felt sorry about that.

“To have a great Slam 16 years after your last good one, that’s just incredible,” Austin said. “You have to give Mirjana credit. What perseverance that took.”

As if to validate Austin’s comments, Lucic-Baroni then went and became the player who endured—and then broke—the longest dry spell between WTA tour-level titles. She won Quebec City a week ago with panache, beating an in-form Venus Williams in the final. It was Lucic-Baroni’s first title since she won Bol in 1998, 16 years and four months ago.

Williams was as astonished as anyone by Lucic-Baroni’s feat. “I think I played pretty well,” Williams, who’s even older at 34, admitted. “But she just played better than me. She just had the magic today."


Magic, 16 Years in the Making

Magic, 16 Years in the Making

That magic was maturing for 16 long, difficult, sometimes rewarding but oftentimes frustrating years. And the enchantment began a full month before it came to fruition in Quebec, at U.S. Open qualifying. There, in the very first round, Lucic-Baroni was down 2-4 to Bernarda Pera, who is Croatian-born but plays for the United States (the irony did not escape Lucic-Baroni’s notice). Once she escaped that jam, her game took wings.

Still, the people in my business thought it nice and perhaps unexpected that Lucic-Baroni qualified for the main draw, and a few eyebrows certainly cocked when in the first round she upset No. 25 seed Garbine Muguruza. After a second-round win over Shahar Peer, Lucic-Baroni beat No. 2 seed Simona Halep, and it all went haywire.

The next thing you knew, Lucic-Baroni was sitting on a dais peering at the assembled press with tears welling and rolling down her cheeks. She apologized.

“I'm a little bit emotional now. Sorry. It's been really hard. Sorry. After so many years to be here again, it's incredible. I wanted this so bad. So many times I would get to, you know, a place where I could do it. Then I wanted it so bad that I'm kind of burned out. And I apologize again. Yeah, I'm so happy.”

She added, “I had ever painful moment on the court. You know, you run your butt off until you can't breathe. Then you do some more. You do that day in and day out. Today, you know, after five matches, however many matches I played so far, you know, I was still able to move great and feel great physically and strong. So, yeah, I'm so happy.”

Get the feeling she was happy?

It wasn’t always so. The good bits and inspiring moments came early for young Mirjana Lucic. She won the U.S. Open girls’ title in 1996, when she was 14. The following year, she won the first tournament that she played as a pro (Bol). Singles and doubles. She would defend the singles title successfully in 1998, and she also bagged the Australian Open doubles title, with Martina Hingis. In 1999, Lucic crafted her top Grand Slam result. She beat nine-time Grand Slam champ Monica Seles and 1998 Wimbledon finalist Nathalie Tauziat before bowing in the Wimbledon semis in three tough sets to Steffi Graf.

Soon thereafter, elements in a not entirely untypical life for a female tennis prodigy began to catch up with Lucic. Her results became erratic; she was said to have “personal problems.” As her results and ranking slumped, she said that she had been abused by her father Marinko since early childhood. The world seemed to crumble under her feet. She played the U.S Open in 2003 and then essentially vanished until 2007.

It was relief that nobody during Lucic-Baroni’s U.S. Open run brought up the abuse issue. Sometimes, even we in the media get it right.

Eventually, Lucic married an Italian restaurateur. She popped up here and there at a 25K event or a qualifying tournament. But nobody took much notice. She made a deeper commitment to playing again starting in 2009, and has posted fluctuating results ever since. But if her return wasn’t swift and triumphant, it wasn’t for lack of effort. Resources also came into it.

“It’s really uncomfortable for me to talk about it,” Lucic-Baroni said at the U.S. Open, when she was asked about the “financial” struggles that some cited. (Raising a question that was better left unasked: How could a supernova like young Lucic be in such dire financial straits, so soon after her debut?) “Obviously that was the main reason why I didn't play. It wasn't any lack of desire or anything. It's just circumstances were such. But I still played with my brothers a lot. I was still in tennis. I was still waiting for my opportunities and things like that.”


Magic, 16 Years in the Making

Magic, 16 Years in the Making

Those opportunities were a long time coming, and they arrived in a hurry in New York and then later in Quebec City. Asked to reflect on those distant days when she was a Wimbledon semifinalist and the toast of tennis, Lucic-Baroni said:

“It was a long time ago. It was really exciting, but back then it was so normal. I was so young and I was so good and I was winning so much that it wasn’t—even though it was exciting, it wasn't really a big deal. It was just a natural progression.

“Now, it's just amazing. Every round is amazing. Every round I look forward to. I know I sound like and I feel like a little kid, like this is the first time something like this is ever happening. I don't know, but I love the feeling. I'm really happy.”

On a more practical level, Lucic-Baroni also was happy to find her game once again. That game had deserted her in her hour of greatest need, and it has remained tantalizingly close but usually just out of her reach during this five-year-long comeback period. Her career-high ranking was just No. 32 (owing to how quickly she burst onto the scene) in singles, 19 in doubles. Now, she’s back up to No. 56 in singles and, judging from the state of her game, almost certain to surpass her previous career best.

“It's amazing. I finally been able to play the tennis that I love, the way I love to play—you know, being really aggressive and consistent at the same time,” Lucic-Baroni said. “Until you make consistent results nobody knows how hard you working, nobody knows what you're doing. But I have been putting in the hours all these years.”

Immediately after she won the Quebec City title, Lucic-Baroni said: “I'm still in a little bit of shock because I was so focused today, but oh my goodness, it's just an amazing feeling right now."

I think it’s safe to say that Lucic-Baroni isn’t the only one who is amazed at what she’s accomplished. It’s an exceptional saga, and in a way I’m happy that I didn’t tell it piecemeal, or before she came up with a satisfying, completely happy ending.