Age is a just number, they say. However, in a game like tennis, that can be a big barrier, even though players like Roger Federer and Serena Williams have proven otherwise. But apart from age, how about some other factors? Like having competely lost touch with the game; like from being tipped as a future star to a total fade-out; like fighting personal problems of disturbing nature. 34-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s example could be quite handy in the matter. The Croatian played her first grand slam semi-final in almost 18 years in the recently concluded Australian Open.
Off to a flier
It was back in 1998 that she burst onto the scene when as a 15-year-old she partnered Matina Hingis to win the Australian Open women’s doubles crown. Prior to that, she had won the 1997 Croatian Bol Ladies open, which was her first ever professional tournament and went on to defend it the next year at the age of 16, making her the youngest player ever in history to successfully defend a title.
Lucic started playing tennis at the tender age of four. She would hide in the car when her older sister went to tennis classes and then would sneak into the lessons herself. Her tenacity was duly rewarded as she went on to win the girl’s singles title at the US Open in 1996 and the girl’s singles and doubles crowns at the Australian Open in 1997. Those amazing feats resulted her in becoming only the third player in the Open era to win two junior Grand Slam singles titles before her 15th birthday.
The doubles success at the Australian Open a year later made her the youngest player in history to win a title in Melbourne at the age of 15 years, 10 months and 21 days. The following year saw her come up with one of her finest individual performances of her career as she reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, beating legendary and then number four Monica Seles en-route. Eventually, she lost to another legend Steffi Graf but not before she had pushed her to three sets in a 7-6 (3) 4-6 4-6 defeat.
Reflecting on her performances back then, Lucic said: “Back then [it] was kind of expected of me and it was normal. I won a lot as a junior. Then I won a lot as soon as I started playing pro. It was kind of normal. It was normal to win tournaments, normal to win big matches and go far. I mean, it was incredible, of course, but it was more normal.”
Physical abuse and derailment
But then of course, fate intervened. She suffered such personal and financial problems that she ended up discontinuing the game she loved. She spoke of being physically abused by her father who had “terrorized” her mentally and physically while apparently grooming her for tennis. So much so, that Lucic, along with her mother and siblings escaped to the United States. “There have been more beatings than anyone can imagine,” she had said back then, adding that it was “too dangerous” for her to remain in Croatia.
Fading into oblivion
But she would never be in the right frame of mind to continue with tennis. Lucic, however, continued to compete till the 2003 US Open, before taking an extended hiatus from the game. After playing just two tournaments over the next three years, Lucic returned to playing regular tennis from 2007. She did not attain much success and perhaps the writing was on the wall as far as her career was concerned.
Returning with a bang
All that would change as she entered the 2017 Australian Open ranked 79th in the world. En-route to her first grand slam semi-final appearance since 1999, she beat the likes of heavy favourites Agnieszka Radwanska, the third seed in straight sets and Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals. Her dream run was ended by eventual champion Serena Williams. Be that as it may, in light of her travails, it indeed required a Herculean effort on her part to come out of her misery.
” One day I will say a long, big story about the things that happened to me, but I never could dream about being here again,” an emotional Lucic gushed out before breaking into tears. "
“This means a lot to every player to come and reach a semi-final but to me this is overwhelming after everything I have been through. I will never, ever forget this day and these last couple of weeks," she added.
Lucic is presently world number 29. Her incredible comeback at the age of 34 certainly gives her a different status and it is an achievement rarely seen, especially in tennis. She has shown immense mental strength in shutting out all her past problems besides demonstrating that you are never too old to give up and never too weak to be suppressed.