The brave and inspiring story behind Australian Open crowd favourite Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni after winning her quarterfinal match against Karolina Pliskova at the Australian Open. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

You could be forgiven for thinking the women’s quarter-final this afternoon between Serena Williams and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, aged 35 and 34 respectively, is part of the legends tournament, but that would ignore the sublime talents of the two players involved.

And for Lucic-Baroni, the giant killer who’s become a crowd favourite, it’s an extraordinary achievement and an inspiring tale of overcoming incredible odds and hardship.

The Croatian is in her first grand slam quarter-final in 18 years. Her last was at Wimbledon in 1999. Back then she was a rising star teen, having won the Australian Open’s women’s double title the previous year alongside Martina Hingis.

But amid that success, the teenager’s private life was hell. She fled to the US in 1998 accusing her father, who was also her coach, of abusing her “with more beatings than anyone can imagine”, with her mother and three siblings. Her father, Marinko, responded at the time that he “never used excessive force and if I did give her the occasional slap, it was because of her behaviour”.

In the next few years, she slipped out of the top 50 rankings and abandoned tennis in 2003. From 2004, Lucic-Baroni spent three years unranked, without the funds to travel and compete in tournaments. Her problems were exacerbated by split with her management company in a dispute that remains unresolved to the this day, nearly 15 years on.

Lucic-Baroni spent a decade in the tennis wilderness before her incredible comeback began in 2010 when she made the top 100 once again, with a reputation for upsetting the cart against higher ranked players.

At the Australian Open this year, she knocked out the no. 3, Agnieszka Radwanska, in the 2nd round. Yesterday, the no. 79 saw off the no. 5, Karolina Pliskova, on Rod Laver Arena, for a shot at Williams today and a place in the final.

She doesn’t say much about her tribulations, but they bubbled to the surface yesterday after another gutsy win.

“Well, people think they know a lot about my history, but they really do not,” she said.

“One day when I feel like talking about it, I will. Right now is not that day. But people think they know. They have no idea. A lot of the times when I hear, like, injuries and things, those were not the problems at all.”

As she was talking to Rennae Stubbs, Lucic-Baroni began to cry, along with many watching. Stubbs was already emotional, hugging her and recounting that 19 years earlier, she was her first victim at the Australian Open.

“One day I will say a long big story about things that happened to me, but, um, I never could dream about being here again, this is just… ” she said, before the emotion took over and she could say anyone more as the tears before to form and the crowd burst into applause.

“I know this means a lot to every player to reach the semi-finals, but to me this is overwhelming. I will never ever forget this day and this last couple of weeks has truly made my life and everything bad that has happened has made it OK.”

Stubbs tweeted her own admiration for the veteran later on.

While Serena Williams is hoping to end the fairytale and head towards her seventh Australian Open title after beating the Brit Johanna Konta in straight sets, her older sister, Venus, 36, is up against the baby of the quarters, 25-year-old fellow American CoCo Vandeweghe this afternoon too.

It’s the oldest final four in 40 years, leading Serena to quip that “30 is the new 10”.

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