Twenty-two years ago, it was nothing more than an October Thursday night in a small Texas town between Austin and San Antonio.
“Meet this girl,” the man said to me. “She’s 13 years old, and you’re going to be hearing a lot about her.”
How many times have any of us who’ve been around tennis been told that? There is always a 13-year-old girl, always a girl who has wowed the locals and who’s local backers believe she’ll light up the world. Having grown up in star-studded (star-crossed?) Los Angeles, I’ve heard this message in all sorts of realms.
But the speaker was Hall of Famer John Newcombe, and the venue was the ranch that bears his name. The girl was shy, but unlike many teens, she shook my hand firmly and made sure to make eye contact. She’d either been taught proper manners or just had a certain sense about herself.
Her name was Mirjana Lucic.
Less than a year later, inside the US Open player’s lounge on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Newcombe waved me over to talk with him and Lucic as she prepared to play the Junior Girls final. To give you an idea of how long ago this was: Arthur Ashe Stadium did not exist. Our conversation included mention of sending a fax here, a fax there. But yes, wood racquets were long gone. Once the rain cleared, Lucic, all of 14, handily won that junior title.
As can happen with the precocious, further success came rapidly. Lucic won her first WTA singles title a week after turning pro in 1997. The next year, an Aussie doubles title with Martina Hingis. In ’99, a trip to the Wimbledon singles semis.
It was nice to see someone I’d met years earlier start to blossom. I’d be lying to say I had any form of significant contact with her. Lucic appeared just yet another prodigy, armed with the bazooka-like groundstrokes and strong work ethic we’ve all come to expect from players of East European origin.
Then, off the cliff. What had been a cascade of results became a sprinkle, barely a flurry, then nothing. After losing in the first round of the 2002 US Open – still a teenager -- Lucic did not play in the main singles draw of a major until the 2010 Roland Garros.
During her exile, terrible tales emerged: an abusive father, financial woe. It was sad to hear this, but also, alas, familiar, everything from the precocity to the father from hell and the money problems. Just another youngster, lost down the tennis rabbit hole.
But now, the resurrection. This has been a glorious year for Lucic-Baroni, highlighted by semifinal appearances at the Australian Open, Acapulco and the Volvo Car Open here in Charleston. Following today’s semifinal loss to Jelena Ostapenko in Charleston, Lucic-Baroni was asked what she would tell her teenage self. “I would just tell her to hang in there and . . . don’t listen to anyone,” she said. “Keep believing in yourself and keep going and don’t listen to absolutely anybody outside your team.”
Newcombe was right. We have heard much about this tenacious woman – though likely less about precocity and more about tenacity. Come Monday, Lucic-Baroni will make her debut in the top 20. It’s one of the most amazing tennis stories of 2017.