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Mirjana Lucic-Baroni: A heartbreaking life, with the return of dreams at the 2017 Australian Open

Lucic-Baroni has made the semi-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time since her 1999 showing at Wimbledon.

25 Jan 2017, 10:48 IST
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 25:  Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia celebrates in her quarterfinal match against Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic on day 10 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Champion! Lucic has made the semi-finals of a Grand Slam 19 years after she first achieved the feat

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni is into her first Grand Slam semifinal in 18 years – the first time since 1999. A lot of things have happened to the Croat ace in the interim; when you look back upon them, you can't help but marvel at her recent success. 

At only 15 years of age, Lucic-Baroni captured the women’s doubles title at the Australian Open with Martina Hingis. She had, just before this, become the youngest tennis player in history to successfully defend a title. 

The next three years saw Lucic-Baroni win tournament after tournament, pull off upset after upset, and reach the important stages of Grand Slams. But just as suddenly as her career had taken an upswing, life went downhill. 

A look back at her childhood 

Lucic-Baroni won the first ever tournament she participated in, at Bol in Croatia – seven days after she turned pro. The event right after that, she progressed to the finals before tumbling to one of tennis’ greatest – Steffi Graf. 

The next year, she reached the biggest milestone of her career – and the furthest she had ever come in the singles – when she reached the semi-finals at the 1999 Wimbledon. But in the years that followed, Lucic-Baroni struggled with problems that uprooted her life and completely derailed a promising career.

She went from a player everyone had touted as one of the future’s biggest stars – a la her co-stars in that ‘film’ of 90s women’s tennis, No. 1s Venus and Serena Williams, or like Alexander Zverev today, to an also-ran.

Personal problems derailing her career

In 1998, still a teenager, Lucic-Baroni revealed in a shocking interview that her father, Marinko, had been physically and mentally abusing her on a regular basis while building up her professional career. She revealed that beatings had been a ‘regular occurence’ over the previous decade, and that she had ended up injured and with a bloody nose on multiple occasions.

It had started when she was only five years old, Lucic-Baroni revealed in an interview in the late 1990s. “I was five-and-a-half years old and lost to an older player.” Her incensed father had “...smacked me straight in the nose; I was bleeding all over the house.”

The family appeared to have put up with the abuse until Marinko threatened to murder his wife Anjelka and children, following which they immediately fled their home in Croatia, seeking refuge in the United States of America. 

Such was the fear that Marinko induced in his family that his daughter Mirjana eventually took out a restraining order against him on the eve of the US Open in 1998. That same year, she revealed in a series of interviews that any losses or shortcomings on the tennis court would be met by regular beatings from her father, and that her siblings had been witness.

That year, speaking after her escape to Croatian newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija, the ace said she had become deathly afraid of her father, from whom there had been “more beatings than is ever imaginable.” “It is not safe for me to stay in Croatia,” she revealed, adding that she also feared for the safety of her mother Anjelka, and her siblings; older sister Ana was also subject to abuse. 

The next few years saw significant legal battles for the Lucic-Baroni, who also said her father and his nephew had been embezzling her prize money. Through his lawyer, her father Marinko denied every allegation, saying he only “gave her the occasional slap for her own good,” and that he “want[ed] to see her grow up to be an idol like Pete Sampras or Steffi Graf.”

At the time, Marinko attempted through his lawyer to justify the abuse, saying he just “did it because [I] wanted what was best for the child.”

But the abuse allegations were backed up, by, among others, Croat former No. 1 Iva Majoli, who said in several interviews that Lucic was “afraid, and quiet” when she was around her father. 

Lucic-Baroni signed up for coaching at the academy run by iconic tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, but her career would never be the same. 

Slow start and steady return

For a significant part of the early and mid-2000s, Lucic-Baroni largely remained active on the ITF Tour, playing tennis just to stay financially afloat. Even in 2006, she revealed it was difficult for her to “even afford equipment, what I need to play. I don’t have the money to travel, for a coach.”

A couple of ITF wins en route helped out, but given the high costs of remaining in the sport, were quite simply not enough. 

With all her financial problems, which obviously took their physical toll, Lucic-Baroni struggled to revive what had been a once-promising career. During this time, she was also diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

She would not return to tour-level participation until 2010.

WTA Comeback

In recent years, Lucic-Baroni has crept back to prominence after bringing on a coach and intensifying her practice. The period around 2009-2010 was key in her return, with the ace winning her first title in 12 years in 2010 and subsequently qualifying for a number of WTA events. 

That year, she also went through qualifying at Wimbledon, eventually making her first Grand Slam main draw since the US Open in 2002. But although she pulled off a couple of big upsets and had strong runs in tournaments, Lucic-Baroni had poor-to-middling results on the rest of the tour.

It was not until 2012 that she found her big breakthrough, when she got to Round 3 at Wimbledon. But she truly rose back to fan and public prominence two years later, in 2014, with two upsets over Simona Halep – one of them at the US Open, where the Romanian had been seeded second. 

She returned to the top 100 in the women’s singles rankings, climbing to 67, the following year – in 2015. 

The Present Day

Lucic-Baroni has, over time, dealt with a history of abuse – a history that, it could be argued, will never entirely go away. But she is happier today, and stronger for all she has been through. 

Today, she defeated the powerful Karolina Pliskova in three sets to definitively mark her return. Tomorrow, she will play Serena Williams, once one of Lucic-Baroni’s best contemporaries and among the greatest tennis players of all time. 

After her win against Jennifer Brady in the pre-quarters, Lucic-Baroni described herself as a “tough little cookie. If I want something, I’ll work really hard, I’ll do everything to get. It’s never a guarantee, but the satisfaction when you do...”

She had a strong message for detractors at the Open – and some motivation, too. “If anyone tells you you can’t do something....F them, F the haters, you show up, and you do it.”

And today, after her quarter-final win, Lucic-Baroni hugged her old rival, former pro Rennae Stubbs, and emotionally said “all the tumult, all the horrible things I have been through, it is worth it, all the fight.”

It’s a tough ask against Serena Williams, and if anyone knows it, it’s Lucic-Baroni. But her approach to the game today touched hearts – and she had one telling statement to sign off.

“When I was on the court, sun in my eyes, legs aching, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I was just at peace.”

Lucic-Baroni today is not just a semi-finalist at the Australian Open. She is an inspiration, a model of fighting the odds, of suffering heartbreak and bouncing back, and of the drive to never give up.

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