Why Mirjana Lucic-Baroni Deserves 15 Years' Worth Of Cheers

NEW YORK -- The tendency when talking about the second life of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni is to eventually invoke names such as CiCi Bellis.

After all, Lucic-Baroni, 32, who knocked off second-seeded Simona Halep Friday in the third round of the US Open, was once Bellis and every other teenage tennis prodigy, in the simplest of terms. Arguably better, in fact, winning the junior US and Australian titles at 14, then at 15 capturing the Australian Open doubles title with Martina Hingis.

AP Photo/Mike Fiala

Mirjana Lucic won her first -- and so far only -- Grand Slam trophy when she partnered with Martina Hingis in 1998 and won the Australian Open doubles title.

At 15, Lucic-Baroni also won the first professional tournament she ever played, then defended it at 16, when she reached her career-high ranking of No. 32 in 1998. At 17, she reached the semifinals of Wimbledon, falling to Steffi Graf.

But by 20, she was forgotten, in and out of tennis, toiling through the lower-level circuit, a period she still finds difficult to talk about, coming as it did after she accused her father, Marinko, of abusing her.

The New York Times reported in 1998 that Lucic, her mother and four siblings fled Croatia for the United States on the eve of the US Open and were seeking a restraining order against the man the newspaper said "physically and mentally terrorized her for the past 10 years while grooming her for tennis stardom." She accused her father and his nephew of stealing some of her prize money.

Asked Friday to "sum up your personal journey," Lucic-Baroni, in her best US Open run since a third-round berth in 1998, began to cry.

"That's not an easy question," she said. "I'm a little bit emotional now. Sorry. It's been really hard. After so many years to be here again, it's incredible. I wanted this so bad. So many times I would get to a place where I could do it. Then I wanted it so bad that [I] kind of burned out. I apologize again. I'm so happy."

Emerging from qualifying rounds, Lucic-Baroni, ranked 121st in the world, beat 25th-seeded Garbine Muguruza in straight sets in the first round here, then got past Shahar Peer before stunning Halep.

Lucic-Baroni next meets 13th-seeded Sara Errani on Sunday.

"I don't know exactly [what happened in] her career because she's older than me [by] many years," said Halep, 22. "But of course I can say I'm happy for her because she played [well] and deserves to win. ... I wish her good luck for the next rounds. . . . [She saw] her chance today and she took it."

Financial problems restricted her play in the early 2000s and Lucic-Baroni played just two tournaments from 2004-06. Resurfacing on the WTA Tour in 2010, she battled through a series of injuries while trying to find her game again. This week it seems she has.

"I mean, it's amazing," she said. "I've finally been able to play the tennis that I love, the way I love to play -- being really aggressive and consistent at the same time. I keep playing better and better each round."

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Coming into the US Open, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni had lost four straight first-round matches at Grand Slam tournaments.

On the court is the easy part. "I knew what I had to do and I was able to do it," she said.

Lucic-Baroni said she watched Bellis, the 15-year-old American who knocked off 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova in the first round.

"I was watching her [Thursday] night," she said. "It was kind of cute. It was a little bit different, but still, you're watching a little kid. ... You don't know what's happening. ...I was having so much fun watching. I was remembering feeling like an adult at 15 when I played here, but she's just a little girl. ..."

The questions are the hard part, trying to reconcile the pain of her childhood with her love for the game. But asked to reflect back to her tennis glory days, that last big Grand Slam run at Wimbledon as a teenager, and there are no tears.

"It was a long time ago," she said. "I remember 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.

"And now it's just amazing. Every round is amazing. Every round I look forward to. I mean, in a way I know I sound like and I feel like a little kid, like this is the first time [it's] ever happening. I don't know, I love the feeling. I'm really happy. ...

"Best day of my life."

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