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.
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.
Fashion hits and misses at the U.S. Open
MISS: Camila Giorgi, U.S. Open
The doliy threw us off.
HIT: Gael Monfils
Asics checks the crazy patterns at the door and sticks to simple neons. Win.
HIT: Eugenie Bouchard, U.S. Open
Bouchard's little blue Nike dress was simple yet distinctive.
HIT: Simone Bolleli/Taro Daniel
MISS: Andrea Petkovic, Maria Kirilenko, Flavia Pennetta
Why do you insist on ruffles, Stella McCartney? Why?
HIT: Ana Ivanovic, U.S. Open
Ivanovic's Adidas little black dress was perfect.
MISS: Maria Sharapova
The hemline is too short and the dress is otherwise...blah.
HIT: Sam Querrey
That classic green is so "tennis". Good to see it back.
MISS: Radek Stepanek
Always pushing the sartorial envelope, the back of Stepanek's shirt is an unforced error.
HIT: Venus Williams, U.S. Open
This wispy blue dress was another ace for Venus' EleVen line.
HIT: Stan Wawrinka
This is the shirt you wear when you want to tell a New York crowd to shut up.
MISS: Serena Williams
Nike needs to stop trying to make blazers a thing. As for the rest? No.
HIT: Maria Sharapova, U.S. Open
We weren't fans of her night dress, but Sharapova's Nike day kit had a chic modern cut.
HIT: Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios
Nike's neon splatter print complemented these two wild youngsters.
MISS: Jelena Jankovic
Jankovic's baggy honeycomb dress from Fila at the U.S. Open.
HIT: Roger Federer, U.S. Open
With Michael Jordan there to see them in action, Federer's NikeCourt Zoom Vapor AJ3 at 2014 were the coolest tennis kicks of the year.
HIT: Victoria Azarenka
The top is business casual, but we love the shorts.
MISS: Donna Vekic
That's a cruel thing to do to an 18-year-old, Nike.
MISS: Caroline Wozniacki, U.S. Open
Although she had a good run, Wozniacki wore more unnecessary ruffles.
HIT: Novak Djokovic
He's in white and grey during the day, but the night kit is bold and sharp.
MISS: John Isner
I thought they were birds at first. Turns out they're "Ls" for Lacoste.
HIT: Sloane Stephens
It's a shame she couldn't stick around. The clean-cut dress was great under the sun.
HIT: Simona Halep
Leave it to Halep to make an all-pink outfit look jockish.
MISS: Grigor Dimitrov
It looks like he's wearing tiny polkadots.
HIT: CiCi Bellis
Not too many missteps for this kid this week.
HIT: Roger Federer, U.S. Open
Darth Federer, version 2.0 at the U.S. Open.
MISS: Ivan Dodig
Is that a ... tiger?
HIT: Tomas Berdych
We're grading on a curve here. Given H&M's recent debacles, we give this a pass.
“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.
“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.”