NEW YORK, Aug 29 (Reuters) - A teary Mirjana Lucic-Baroni turned back the clock with a stunning upset win over second seed Simona Halep at the U.S. Open on Friday but was focused on the future.
The last time the 32-year-old beat a top five ranked player her name was Monica Seles while it was Steffi Graf who ended the Croatian’s U.S. Open bid in 1998 knocking her out in the third round.
While Graf and Seles have long retired as tennis greats, Lucic-Baroni battles on against a new tennis generation as she continues to try and salvage something from a career that never came close to delivering on its immense promise.
But on a sun-kissed grandstand court, the former-child prodigy seized the spotlight with a 7-6(6) 6-2 over the Romanian second seed to claim an unlikely place in the fourth round of the year’s final grand slam.
”I mean, I‘m a little bit emotional now. Sorry,“ apolgised Lucic-Baroni, tears dripping down her cheeks. ”It’s been really hard.
“Sorry,” she added wiping away more tears.
”After so many years to be here again, it’s incredible. I wanted this so bad. So many times I would get to, you know, a place where I could do it.
”Then I wanted it so bad that I‘m kind of burned out. And I apologize again.
“I‘m so happy.”
The win brought back memories of a lifetime ago, when Lucic-Baroni arrived on the scene hailed as a future star.
Lucic-Baroni, a U.S. and Australian Open junior champion, underscored her potential winning her first tournament in Bol, Croatia in 1997 when she was just 15 and defended the title a year later but never again returned to the winner’s circle.
She remains the fifth youngest player ever to win a WTA event behind Tracy Austin, Kathy Rinaldi, Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati and is the first player to win both her first doubles and singles events.
In 1998 she celebrated a grand slam title winning the doubles at the 1998 Australian Open.
But the brilliance quickly faded in a string of injuries and financial problems.
”I feel goofy right now. I feel like I‘m 15 now,“ said Lucic-Baroni, a qualifier ranked 121st in the world. ”I feel so excited. It’s crazy.
”I‘m 32, but I don’t feel like that. My body is really great.
”That’s really important. I feel fit. I feel strong in my mind. I feel very excited, even after so many years on Tour.
“I still have so much desire, so much to play.”
Lucic-Baroni arrived in Flushing Meadow on an eight match losing streak and her record against top five opponents was dire, her only win coming against Seles at the 1999 Wimbledon.
In 10 trips to the U.S. Open she had never ventured beyond the third round and claimed the last of her two career titles 16 years ago.
Now she is on a six match winning streak and headed for a fourth round meeting with Italian Sara Errani, who also earned passage with an upset win over twice U.S. Open champion Venus Williams.
”It’s amazing. I finally been able to play the tennis that I love the way I love to play,“ said Lucic-Baroni. ”You know, being really aggressive and consistent at the same time.
”Until you make consistent results nobody knows how hard you working, nobody knows what you’re doing.
”I have been putting in the hours all these years but I always end up battling few injuries.
“Now finally being able to do it consistently, it’s starting to show in results. Yeah, so it feels great finally.”
While Lucic-Baroni sounds driven to add a happy ending to a her career, she said it is not something she is obsessed with or needs.
”I have such an amazing husband and such a happy life at home that I don’t need to do this,“ said Lucic-Baroni. ”I would be perfectly fine having a family.
”But 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 - I mean, it’s what I work for. It’s just so fulfilling, so amazing.” (Editing by Gene Cherry)