This year’s Australian Open Tournament has turned out as an event full of great tennis stories. Beside the forceful return of Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Spain’s Rafael Nadal, the tournament at Melbourne Park has seen a resurgent Venus Williams and the phenomenal rise of Williams’ compatriot Coco Vandeweghe. That is not all. Tennis outsiders Denis Istomin and Mischa Zverev claimed the biggest scalps at Melbourne in booting out defending champion Novak Djokovic and top-seeded world no.1 Andy Murray. But there is one story, which stands above all and it concerns a former teenage prodigy Croatia’s Marjana Lucic-Baroni.
Nearly two decades earlier, Marjana Lucic-Baroni was a highly rated player along with her then contemporaries Martina Hingis and Venus Williams. Her later years, however brought an agonizing time full of family troubles, injuries and many other obstacles. She kept making sporadic appearances but lost the promise shown earlier due to her life going haywire. On Wednesday, however, the 34-year old Croat made her presence felt once again after all the trauma of past years. She entered a Grand Slam semifinal by defeating fifth-seeded Czech Karolina Pliskova. For Lucic-Baroni, it was only the second time that she earned a semifinal berth in a Grand Slam event, since she made it to the last-four, 18 years ago at Wimbledon in 1999. For reaching the Australian Open final, Lucic-Baroni will have to beat the formidable Serena Williams. However, having reached thus far, the Croat will have no regrets if she is beaten by arguably one of the most decorated woman players in tennis history. And if she wins by any chance, that will be her life’s biggest achievement.
20 years ago, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni broke into tennis’s top tier and people talked about her in the same breath as Martina Hingis and Venus Williams. Steffi Graf was almost towards the end of her career and so was Monica Seles. Hingis was dominating women’s tennis but Lucic-Baroni looked in the same league. Partnering Hingis in the 1998 Australian Open women’s doubles, the 15-year old Lucic won the only Grand Slam title of her life and the future looked bright for the little kid from Croatia. In 1999, Lucic reached the semifinals of women’s singles in Wimbledon singles after beating fourth-seeded Monica Seles and eighth-seeded Nathalie Tauziat but missed the final spot as she lost to Steffi Graf in three sets.
Soon Lucic’s life changed as she fled from Croatia to Florida with her mother and four siblings, reportedly to escape the mental and physical abuse by her father Marinko. Her game suffered and her WTA ranking dropped to below 100. The next 10 years of her life were full of unending pain. Between 2004 and 2007, Lucic competed in just 6 tournaments in an attempt to finance her family’s living needs. Though the Croat never stopped making comeback attempts to reach the Tour-level, it was only in 2010, that she broke into the top 100 yet again. In the last two years, her best performances were beating Romanian Simona Halep twice; once in the 2014 US Open and again in 2015 French Open.
In the last six days, Lucic-Baroni surpassed her own expectations at Melbourne Park. She began by beating no.3 seeded Pole Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 6-2 in second round on January 19; US qualifier Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-2 in fourth round on January 23 and on Wednesday, she defeated no.5 seeded Czech Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. With that, she earned a chance to play the semifinal against Serena Williams on Thursday January 26. But the Croatian was categorical in telling the media after her upset victory over Pliskova that the Grand Slam semifinal berth was like a huge redemption of the lost time of her life. Whether or not, Lucic-Baroni beats Serena, she is already in her best frame of mind in years. Many people at Melbourne Park are aware of Lucic-Baroni’s agonizing tale of life and they are whole-heartedly cheering for her, whenever she comes to the court for her matches.