A journey to hell and back

A prodigy who went off track, Lucic-Baroni has scripted an inspiring comeback story

A journey to hell and back

As Mirjana Lucic-Baroni's fairytale Australian Open continued into the second week, what came into sharp focus was the Croat’s fighting qualities that have seen her overcome personal trauma, financial constraints and injury on a long, long road back to the top.

The 34-year-old, who stunned third seed Agnieszka Radwanska in round two, battled from a set down to end the dreams of Greek Maria Sakkari 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 to make the fourth round to set up a clash withAmerican qualifier Jennifer Brady, who shocked 14th seed Elena Vesnina.

It has been a memorable tournament so far for Lucic-Baroni, who in 1997 made her US Open debut at just 15 and teamed with Martina Hingis to win the 1998 Australian Open women's doubles. A promising career seems to be unfolding at the time for the teen.

In 1999, at 17, she went to the Wimbledon semifinals where it took Steffi Graf to beat her.

Personal issues

But it all fell apart soon after that as she was engulfed by heartbreaking personal issues.

The background back then was tough, a demanding father Marinko who, Lucic-Baroni later revealed, dished out regular beatings -- although he described them as "slaps" that were "best for the child".

Eventually, in desperation, Mirjana, her mother Andelka and four siblings fled their Croatia home in the dead of night for the sanctuary of the United States. It was a journey into the unknown.

The drama, however, put the brakes on a journey which should have led to fame and fortune as financial problems forced her to put a career on a backburner. Lucic-Baroni disappeared from professional tennis for most of the 2003-2010 period, before slowly feeling her way back.

She said it had been a rocky road back, playing small events, but she never gave up on her dream.

"I never thought about stopping, but it was difficult. It was a lot of tears, a lot of disappointments. It was really hard," she said of playing lower-level circuits.

"I think many would give up, and I really take a lot of pride in that, because it was really hard. I didn't get any wildcards, I didn't get any special treatment. I really had to do it on my own, and I had to fight so hard for it.

"I take a lot of pride in that, and it takes a lot of character. It takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of mental strength.

"The fact that I was able to do that and be here today just kind of proves to myself who I am and what a fighter I am."

She added that contrary to popular opinion, a tennis player's life was not all fame and fortune, and could be a torturous slog to make a living.

"Whoever thinks that this is glamorous and all this prize money and all that should come have a chat with me," she said.

"It is not all it's cracked up to be, and it is -- I mean, it's not so easy to get to this point, for sure. Challenger circuit is very difficult mentally.

"You don't have ball boys, ball girls. You don't have umpires. Things are not as easy or as smooth as they are here, as well organized. You play for $55 a match, so it's difficult."

Until this year she had never gone beyond the second round in Melbourne since her debut in 1998, setting the new record of a 19-year gap between wins at a single Grand Slam tournament.

It surpassed the previous record held by Japan's Kimiko Date, who went 17 years between victories at Wimbledon between 1996 and 2013.


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