The curtain closed on CiCi Bellis’s excellent adventure Thursday night. The American teen delighted the insatiable Court 17 crowd with a youthful abandon that exuded from her pores. She bounded about the court. She gunned her forehand for winners. She giggled at the absurdity of it all, she the youngest player into the second round of the US Open since Anna Kournikova in 1996.
Absent from that omnipresent graphic was mention of another 15-year-old who made her US Open debut a year later. Three months older than Kournikova had been, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni found herself forgotten by the record books, but is still looking to make history sixteen years later. The 32-year-old Croat was one of the many who tuned in to watch Bellis’s second round match against Zarina Diyas, but couldn’t completely relate to the teenager’s unbridled exuberance.
“It was kind of cute. I was remembering…it was a little bit different. Still you’re watching a little kid, and for me it was just so normal when I was 15 playing here. I was feeling like an adult at 15 when I played here, but, yeah, it’s just…she’s just a little girl.”
Surrounded by a supportive family in an affluent California suburb, Bellis is a little girl doing big things. Struggling to get out from under the thumb of a violent and vengeful father, Lucic-Baroni became a little girl lost.
“I was so young and I was so good and I was winning so much,” the 121st ranked qualifier recalled after her third round match, a stunning straight-sets upset of No. 2 seed Simona Halep.
All she did was win. She won the first WTA tournament she ever played, claiming a top 10 win over Amanda Coetzer en route to the title in Bol, Croatia. She won seven more matches a month later before falling to then-No. 2 Steffi Graf in the final of Strasbourg. She won her first Grand Slam title, an Australian Open women’s doubles crown, with contemporary Martina Hingis.
None of this satisfied father Marinko, who regularly verbally and, according to a confession from Lucic-Baroni in 1998, physically abused her from five years of age until she escaped to the United States with her mother and siblings.
A year after her Fourth of July emancipation, she declared independence with a fairytale run to the semifinals of Wimbledon. The young Croat’s flat shots whizzed past Monica Seles and 1998 finalist Nathalie Tauziat with effortless efficiency, and nearly unseated Graf in a thrilling three-set affair.
What followed should have been a revolution. Instead, a retreat. Lucic-Baroni found that leaving her father behind was the easy part. Leaving the past proved more difficult. Legal issues first eroded her credibility, her ranking shortly thereafter. Soon, there was nothing left of either.
“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 in tennis a lot. I was still waiting for my opportunities.”
A brief hiatus became a four year sabbatical. The still-young Croat became a footnote on more dramatic and more well-reported stories of tennis parents from hell. Most would have given up, made a new life, and moved on.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni moved forward.
She started from the bottom, playing small ITF events to rebuild her ranking. Still no revolution, but an evolution.
“I didn’t get wildcards. Didn’t get to play, you know, ‘just pick nice events and play.’ I played qualies of every not-awesome 25[K] everywhere in the world. I worked my way back and I earned it.”
Over a decade after reaching the Wimbledon semis, she qualified for the first Grand Slam main draw of her comeback. She reached the second round of the 2010 US Open as a qualifier, pushing No. 4 seed Jelena Jankovic to three sets. She had made it to the big stage. It was now a matter of execution.
“I wanted it so bad that when I would get my chance on a big court against a big player I wanted it so bad that I kind of was paralyzed. I couldn’t do it. It was always like, ‘Okay, how many more do I have?’ I have to do it now. I have to do it now.”
For one who plays with such little margin, Lucic-Baroni maintained a modicum of consistency over the last four years, staying in and around the Top 100 and playing in all but one Grand Slam main draw since the 2010 Championships.
But the game plan wasn’t clear. For all of her resilience, her hyper-aggressive ground game never looked sustainable. In an era of topspin and torque, Lucic-Baroni plays with all the subtlety of a Miley Cyrus power ballad. Through the years, the veteran was encouraged to tinker with her game and make tactical adjustments. The indecision mixed with anxiety in important moments made for some very quick, very public losses. Playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium against Francesca Schiavone in 2011, she made 30 unforced errors and hit herself off the court in 53 minutes. This year’s US Open, then, represents a “back to basics” approach, where she embraces the risks to claim the rewards.
“I’m not the type of player that, you know, builds points and loops balls and kind of waits for their opportunities. I like to go for my shots. I enjoy that. I enjoy hitting winners. I enjoy hitting aces. I really love that. It’s kind of finding the balance for me is the trick. Finding the balance between hitting it 10 feet long and, you know, hitting it inside the lines. I just need to play the way I play and be fit and strong and move well. I feel like I’m doing that now.”
The Grandstand court has all the amenities of a modern-day amphitheater, a stage on which one might act out the Greek tragedy of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s career. Refusing to wallow in the notion that she can no longer compete with young guns like Halep, a player who has all the athletic and technical abilities necessary to unhinge her offense, she did what she has done so many times before in her life.
She reached for her happy ending.
As shadow encroached upon the soon-to-be-demolished show court, Lucic-Baroni sealed the biggest upset of her career with all the carefree confidence of a 15-year-old. With two aces and a prolonged shrug, the 32-year-old was into the second week.
“Now it’s just amazing. Every round is amazing. Every round I look forward to. I mean, in a way I know I sound like and I feel like a little kid, like this is the first time ever happening. I don’t know, I love the feeling. I’m really happy.”
Now we’re here. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni has all the youthful abandon of a CiCi Bellis mixed with an adult gratitude, one that strong characters often exude after they have been to hell and back. Healthy and hungry, the veteran has been “reborn” by the concrete of Flushing Meadows. Where does the happy ending lie? For Lucic-Baroni, happy has already been found.
The rest is merely a beginning.