The disappointment of a loss in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Sunday wasn't enough to quell the joy of getting there for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
She fell in three sets at Arthur Ashe Stadium to Sara Errani, 6-2, 2-6, 6-0, on a day when the humidity made it seem less like a player was running through the damp air and more like they were wading in it. Lucic-Baroni ran out of gas, but her tank of inspiration still says "full."
It would be difficult for even the most avid tennis fan to recall a child prodigy who showed so much promise and then fell into a well of personal turmoil that led to obscurity. Born in Germany and raised in Croatia, Lucic-Baroni won the 1996 U.S. Open juniors at age 14, followed that with the Australian juniors in 1997, and then won the first professional tournament she ever entered at age 15. In 1999 she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, having beaten Monica Seles along the way. She was Mirjana Lucic then, and she was a prospect.
But she had a dark backstory. She told Tennis magazine in 1999 that she had been abused physically and mentally by her father, who was her coach. Her mother took her and her four siblings to Florida in 1998, and after that Wimbledon run, her career took a slippery slope into the abyss. From the end of 2003 until 2007 she barely played, shackled by financial restraints. The last six years she has battled through the lowest ranks, trying to get back to the game's elite, which isn't easy when you are 32.
So her Open performance this year is, in a sense, a Grand Slam. She had to win three matches in qualifying just to get into the main draw and then took out the No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the third round.
"This has been a great two weeks, the best so far since I can remember for a long time," said Lucic-Baroni, thoroughly exhausted but entirely satisfied with what she had done. "I think I'm living proof here these last two weeks that it's never over. I have come back so many times here, just here. So it's never over. I just fight."
There was one glaring discrepancy on the statistics sheet of yesterday's match. Lucic-Baroni made 69 unforced errors, Errani 9. That stat can be deceiving, disguising the fact that Lucic-Baroni is a far more aggressive player, rallying against the wall that Errani puts up.
"I'm frustrated. It was way too much," Lucic-Baroni said. "I knew I was going for too much. It was difficult to play because it was a very windy day. That kind of played a huge role. It was really difficult to time the balls, especially on her serve. It comes so slow and it kind of floats in the air. I wanted to keep going for the ball and keep playing aggressive, but I just missed too much."
Life seems to have been pretty good for her lately. She added the "Baroni" to her last name when she married Sarasota restaurateur Daniele Baroni in 2011. She has made some progress with her game, and this Open run will jump her from No. 121 in the world to somewhere in the 80s, allowing her to get into more tournaments, more big tournaments.
She's off to Quebec for another tournament with supercharged resolve. "Yeah, I am super excited," she said. "Now it feels like the first time for me."