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.”