“Can I just start by saying how much I appreciate your punctuality? I’m very particular when it comes to being on time, so I appreciate when other people are as well.”
Through two decades of promise and potential, trials and tribulations, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni remains a consummate professional. The former world No. 20 has expertly compartmentalized an explosive athletic odyssey alongside an equally fulfilling family life, one that quietly grew larger with the arrival of a first-born daughter just three weeks ago.
“You know me, I’m notoriously private,” she said over the phone as the 2021 Australian Open came to a close. “I don’t have Twitter or Instagram, but I’m so excited. I’ve been a bit around the clock, and sleep deprived, so I can’t claim responsibility for at least 50% of the things I’m going to say!”
Lucic-Baroni—whose husband Daniele owns Mediterraneo, a quarter-century staple of the Sarasota restaurant scene—has shared a photo to her private Facebook, at last letting her wider social circle in on news she had kept only for close family and friends.
“It was kind of unexpected because for this sort of thing, we’ve talked about putting it in God’s hands, and that things will happen how they’re meant to happen. When it did, we took it as a sort of a sign, that now it’s time for this.”
The Croat last played in Melbourne back in 2018—a year removed from a revelatory run to the semifinals, her best Grand Slam result since making the same round at Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 1999.
“It’s funny because I’m not exactly active on Facebook, but one of my favorite things are the memories that appear in my newsfeed. It may be the only reason I’ve held onto the profile, because every year around this time, the pictures pop up from that Australian Open and it just gives me chills. My sister will share one of the photos with me and we’ll just reminisce on what an incredible time that was.”
A contemporary of the Williams sisters, Lucic-Baroni won the first WTA main draw she ever played—and finished runner-up in her second to none other than Stefanie Graf—only for family and financial issues to derail her career for nearly a decade.
Rebuilding her ranking from zero, she soon became one of the toughest outs in tennis, twice blitzing Simona Halep at major tournaments in the lead-up to her fairytale fortnight in Australia, where she shocked Agnieszka Radwanska and Karolina Pliskova before bowing out to eventual champion Serena Williams.
“I felt very present the whole tournament. I clearly remember feeling like all of the years, the struggles to get back to major tournaments and to be in that moment, in the quarters or semis—it takes everyone a huge effort, but I overcame some especially incredible odds—and in that moment, every emotion I’d had along the way, over a decade, came up. I just felt like, 'I’m a fighter, here we are, and you did it.' I wouldn’t call it a feeling of achievement so much as one of gratitude. It was worth fighting for, and I was so grateful just to be there.”
That form continued through that spring, where she reached the quarterfinals of the Miami Open and the semifinals of the Volvo Car Open, and though shoulder injuries have since curtailed her resurgence, the 38-year-old never let go of the game.
“I’d wait, take a little time off, do some injections and rehab. I’d start and stop training over and over, and all of that was unbelievably draining. I was always planning to come back, but as soon as I would start serving and increase the intensity, things would get bad all over, and I would have to be off for a long time again. After everything I’d gone through, and the long career I’ve had, there was no way I wanted to come to a tournament unprepared.
“I was hoping to ultimately come back for the French Open, Wimbledon, US Open last year, and then this crazy thing happened with the pandemic, and everything go pushed back. It wasn’t long after that that I found out I was pregnant, and then everything really took a back seat.”
Faced with a daunting prospect of starting a family during and maintaining a business most directly affected by the global pandemic, she dealt with adversity with her inimitable aplomb, attending ultrasounds alone and ensuring the restaurants adhered to COVID-19 protocols.
“I’ve had not a baby shower, not a thing! I’ve been in my house, staying away, and trying to keep healthy, and as much as it killed some of that joy, not being able to experience these kinds of things with your family, that’s the least of the problem when it comes to keeping everyone safe.”
While tending to her new baby, Lucic-Baroni kept the Australian Open playing in the background—something she initially couldn’t do in those tortuous first months away from tennis—and with a protected ranking still in her formidable arsenal, still sees a path back to tennis thanks to the likes of Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Kim Clijsters.
“When I started playing, 27 or 28 meant you were an old, old lady; you were practically considered a grandma. Athletes are so much different than they were 20 years ago, and careers are prolonged. I think to myself, ‘Would I have five more years of a career? Probably not, but would I love the challenge of coming back, playing a little bit and seeing what I can do? I’ve watched incredible women have babies and come back to do incredible things. It makes me want to say, ‘Ok, let’s see what I can do.’
"It’s an enormous ask, but I’ve done crazy things before, things that nobody thought I could, and I enjoy a good challenge.”
Though external forces have made the professional and private Lucic-Baroni’s return to action less than punctual, the final chapter of her storied career will arrive when it’s ready, and, as always, on her terms.
“I’ve seen everything, up down, left and right. I have plenty of things to say and ways of describing my life, and how things happen. People assume that they know a lot about me, and what happened, but they have no idea. Talk about a shocker once they find out what happened when we left Croatia and came here, and how much crap we had to deal with. I think they’ll be surprised, and maybe appreciate my success and continued perseverance even more.”