For Lucic-Baroni, win against No. 2 Halep is 15 years overdue
NEW YORK -- In the 1990s, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni was tennis’ CiCi Bellis or Belinda Bencic: a young teen star on the court and the talk of a Grand Slam tournament. She then spent to better part of the next 15 years in tennis’ desert.
So when the 32-year-old upset No. 2 Simona Halep at the Grandstand on Friday afternoon at the U.S. Open – and advanced to the fourth round of a major for the first time in 15 years – she couldn’t do anything but drop her racket in disbelief.
“After so many years to be here again, it's incredible,” she said tearfully after her 7-6 (6), 6-2 victory. “I wanted this so bad.”
In 1997, Lucic (the Baroni didn’t come until her 2011 marriage) made her debut at the main draw of the U.S. Open at just 15, and won two matches before being eliminated in the third round. At the Australian Open in 1998, Lucic-Baroni teamed up with Martina Hingis to win the women’s doubles title, and just a year later, she made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon beating Monica Seles before falling to Steffi Graf. After the match Graf gushed that Lucic was more advanced than she had been at the same age.
After financial problems restricted her play in the mid-2000s, she didn’t reappear on the WTA tour until 2010 and struggled with injuries. But at her current rank of No. 121 in the world, Lucic-Baroni defeated 25th-seed Garbine Mugurza in straight sets in the first round and Sharar Peer in the second before upsetting Halep. She will play No. 13 Sara Errani on Sunday.
“Best day of my life, definitely,” she said. “ I feel like I'm 15 now. I feel so excited. People don't realize how much I want this and how hard I worked for this. It's these moments in these last two weeks that are just so fulfilling.”
As she channeled her inner-teenager, Lucic-Baroni said she also enjoyed watching American CiCi Bellis beat Dominika Cibulkova and compete in the second round.
More than 15 years later and her teenage glory days behind her, Lucic-Baroni gets emotional about her past, but after 31 winners against 22-year-old Halep, she’s ready to play.
“It was a long time ago. Now it’s just amazing – I feel like a little kid, like this is the first time this is ever happening,” she said. “I’ve finally been able to play the tennis that I love to play.”