When a starry-eyed young player steps onto the court for their first pro match, almost all of them have the same dream: winning a Grand Slam. For some, that goal almost comes naturally. For others, it's an uphill battle full of depression, setbacks, early losses and heartache.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni knows about that struggle all too well. Turning pro in 1997, the Croatian has played in 41 major main draws, losing 22 times in the first round. She has only reached the second week of a Grand Slam on three occasions—the semifinals of the 1999 Wimbledon, the fourth round of the 2014 US Open in 2014 and the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open.
What's most remarkable about the 34-year-old's story is that until last week, Lucic-Baroni hadn't won a match in Melbourne for 18 years. So how did she go from a multiple first-round loser to this year's dark horse?
At first, the newly professional Lucic-Baroni seemed to be the next big thing. Ending her first season at No. 52, and winning her first WTA title in her first-ever WTA appearance (in Bol) to become the fifth-youngest player ever to do so. She then reached the final in Strasbourg, losing to Steffi Graf, who said after the final, "I was not nearly as good as she is at 15." The Croatian went on to reach the third round of the US Open.
It was another stellar season for the teenager. She finished the season at No. 51, won Bol for the second time, reached the semifinals of Rome and the third round of the US Open again. Her greatest success that year was becoming the youngest player to ever win an Australian Open title—just 15 years and 21 days at the time —by taking the doubles crown with Martina Hingis. The pair also went on to win the Pan Pacific tournament.
This was the last truly successful year for the Croatian for well over a decade. It was the first and only time she finished the season in the Top 50—at precisely No. 50—and the first time she reached the second week of a Grand Slam (the Wimbledon semifinals). At No. 134, she was the lowest ranked player to reach the semifinals in London at the time (it has since been surpassed).
All good things must come to an end. Between these three years, Lucic-Baroni only reached the second round at Wimbledon, and the second and third rounds at the French Open. Every other major she competed in, she either lost in the first round or did not qualify for the main draw.
She only played two ITF Pro Circuit tournaments in two years after family troubles pushed her away from the game.
Did not play.
Lucic-Baroni fell in the qualifying rounds of 12 tournaments and only reached the second round of a tournament once.
The 28-year-old started gaining traction. She ended the season at No. 105, the closest she had been to the Top 100 in many years and also won two titles on the ITF Pro Circuit. During the middle of the season, she briefly broke into the Top 100 for the first time since 2000.
For the first time since 1999, Baroni reached two WTA quarterfinals—Strasbourg and Birmingham.
The Croatian reached the third round of Wimbledon, her first third round in a Grand Slam since 2001. She also won one doubles ITF Pro Circuit title.
Once again, she got close to busting through to the Top 100 (finishes the season at No. 104), and won one singles and one doubles ITF Pro Circuit title.
Lucic-Baroni really started making a return to the spotlight this year. She reached the fourth round of the US Open—the farthest she had gone in a Grand Slam since 1999—and defeated Venus Williams to win the Quebec City title. This accomplishment became the longest gap between winning titles in WTA history at 16 years and four months. She finished the season in the Top 100 for the first time in 15 years at No. 67.
The resurgence continued with the 33-year-old reaching the quarterfinals in Acapulco and Luxembourg, the semifinals in Quebec City, and the third round at Roland Garros which was her best result in Paris since 2001.
A full-fledged force on tour, Lucic-Baroni continued her success by reaching the final of Strasbourg again, as well as finishing in the Top 100 for the third straight year.
Now, as the Australian Open continues into its second week, Lucic-Baroni has managed to capture lightning in a bottle by making it the quarterfinals of a tournament she previously had never even reached the third round in.
Not surprisingly, the world No. 79's fourth-round win over fellow dark horse Jennifer Brady on Monday left her feeling pretty excited.
Can Lucic-Baroni keep up her fairy tale run? The 34-year-old will have a tough challenge against fifth seeded Karolina Pliskova next. However, if she has taught her fans anything, it's to never give up.
"I’m a tough little cookie, and really, really stubborn," Lucic-Baroni said on Monday. "When I want something, I will work really hard and I will do whatever it takes to get it. It’s not a guarantee, by any means, that you’re gonna get there, but, man, what a satisfaction I feel right now. Incredible. And I will tell it to anybody struggling out there.
"… F--- everything and everybody who ever tells you you can’t do it. Just show up and do it with your heart."