Welcome to Florida Week! As the tours head southeast for the Miami Open, TENNIS.com and Baseline will feature all things Sunshine State. You’ll learn about the personalities, stories, teams and venues that have made Florida one of the tennis capitals of the world. We’ll also be reporting from the Miami Open in Key Biscayne.
As you’ll learn this week, when it comes to tennis, Florida isn’t just a state—it’s a state of mind.
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—Mirjana Lucic-Baroni has played a lot of matches in her 20-year career, and has used up as many second lives as seemingly possible. The 35-year-old used one again on Thursday, coming back from the brink against Kateryna Bondarenko to reach the Miami Open third round, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (2).
Playing on a relatively obscure Court 8, the world No. 29 had to stay calm and fight back from what appeared to be an insurmountable deficit in the third.
“It was a bit up and down for sure,” Lucic-Baroni said. “I didn't feel that I played that great … All of a sudden, at 5-1 in the third set, it was either wake up or go home.”
With her extremely flat, go-for-broke ground strokes and desire to stay on top of the baseline, Lucic-Baroni takes a lot of risks, and has to weather her own storms more than her opponent’s. She dictates play and she dictates the rhythm of the match, even when it starts slipping away from her.
“I was first really annoyed with myself that I was in that situation, because I feel that I'm in good form and I feel that I'm playing really well,” Lucic-Baroni said. “…I knew that I could come back. I’m always a tough fighter and I try to play one point at a time, and I believed I could come back.”
The Croatian’s story has been told before. Starting her career as a prodigy, she racked up some “youngest ever” records by winning the first WTA tournament she appeared in—in Bol—and becoming the youngest-ever doubles major champion in Australia in 1998 (with Martina Hingis). She also slammed her way to the Wimbledon semifinals in 1999 as a 17-year-old.
She’s now enjoying what is literally a second career, returning to the tour (or International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit) for good in 2008 after financial and personal problems with her father pushed her away from competition for four years. She would then spend most of the next decade on the ITF Pro Circuit.
“I was very much focused on tennis, still,” Lucic-Baroni said about the gap in her career. “I trained normally. I trained with my brothers. I didn't have a coach at the time. I knew sooner or later something was going to come, opportunities were going to show up.
“Luckily I’m strong enough and stubborn enough, and patient enough, that I was waiting for my opportunities. That's why I’m here at 35.”
By 2014, Lucic-Baroni was competing more on the WTA tour than the ITF Circuit, and she re-announced herself to the top tier by stunning Venus Williams in the Quebec City final. Now she was setting new records, including one for the biggest gap between titles (16 years).
Last year she had a solid Top 70 finish, but it was nothing quite like 2017 has been so far. Coming seemingly out of nowhere in Melbourne, the Croat reached the semifinals by knocking out Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals. She then struggled with illness and injury in Acapulco and Indian Wells, but is injury and tape-free—so far—in Miami.
“Australia was amazing for sure,” Lucic-Baroni said. “…It really was magical. It was perfect. But after the tournament, after I came home and spent time with my family, it was huge. But it's tough to explain—it also wasn't such a big deal. Nothing has changed in my life except I feel good and I didn't do what I knew I could do in a long time.”
While Australia is a bigger stage than a WTA Premier event, Lucic-Baroni’s win on Thursday was her first in Miami since reaching the third round back in 1999. That fact is not lost on her at all.
“It's funny because I talked to my husband and he was like, ‘Who cares [that] you didn't win a match in Australian in 20 years?” Lucic-Baroni said. “’So who cares—maybe you'll win a match or two here.’ Now that that's off my back I don’t think about it anymore. It's gone. It's good, so maybe it's a good omen.”
Success is coming fast for the woman that’s dedicated her life to the sport, and had the patience to stick it out even when everything seemed over for her and her career-highs looked well behind her. The game is clearly aging, and Lucic-Baroni is proud of it.
“You can see it now,” Lucic-Baroni said. “Fifteen, 20 years ago when I [was] just starting, I mean Hingis was [a teenager]—Venus, Serena, myself, we were so young. If you weren't good by the time you were 16 or 17, you were finished.
“At some point, somebody in my team told me I was done when I was 20 because I wasn't making huge results. At 20, they told me my career was over.”
Now at 35, she has reached her career-high ranking of No. 29, edging out her previous high of No. 32 set back in 1998, when she was just 16.
“It's been so long that I was stuck [at No. 32] and that was my best, so I didn't even think about it,” Lucic-Baroni said. “I didn't really focus on the rankings. I always said I would rather play one semifinal or one final or win a Grand Slam than win 15 other tournaments. But rankings, I care about it only because right now I can enter whatever I want. I don't have to play qualies.”
Next, she’ll take on Agnieszka Radwanska or Qian Wang for a chance to go one round better than her best Miami result from 18 years ago. No matter what happens, you know Lucic-Baroni will put up a fight.
“That's one thing I've been known for, just to persevere through everything,” Lucic-Baroni said. “Even today. It’s silly, it’s just one thing, but even my score today—being 5-1 down—most likely you’re out of the tournament.
“The fact that I can come back from things like that, in life and on the tennis court, gives me a lot of pride and lot of strength.”
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