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For Lucic-Baroni, win against No. 2 Halep is 15 years overdue

NEW YORK -- In the 1990s, MirjanaLucic-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.

Steffi Graf, left, poses with Mirjana Lucic of Croatia in 1997.

Steffi Graf, left, poses with Mirjana Lucic of Croatia in 1997.

But by 20, her stardom and success on the court came to a screeching halt. She disappeared from the tennis circuit for years, shortly after she accused her father and coach, Marinko, of mental and physical abuse while “grooming her for tennis stardom.” Lucic-Baroni was ranked No. 50 in the world on the eve of the 1998 U.S. Open when she fled Croatia to get away from her father and revealed the details of their relationship and accused Marinko and his nephew of stealing some of her prize money. Years later, financial troubles still burdened her attempts to reignite her tennis career. Her past, though painful, made her win and third-round berth on Friday that much sweeter.

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“It’s really uncomfortable for me to talk about it,” said Lucic-Baroni, who needed three wins in qualifying just to earn a spot in this year’s main draw (and trailed by 4-2 in the third set of her first qualifying match). “Obviously that was the main reason why I didn’t play. It wasn’t any lack of desire or anything. It’s just circumstances were such. I still played with my brothers a lot. I was still waiting for my opportunities.”

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.

CiCi Bellis bursts onto scene at U.S. Open as young American star

“It was kind of cute, but a little bit different,” she said. “I was having so much fun watching and remembered feeling like an adult at 15 when I played here.”

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.”