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Lucic-Baroni, and fairytale comebacks in tennis and cricket

Wisden India logo Wisden India 28-01-2017 R Kaushik

It was a Thursday to forget for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. It was also a Thursday to remember and savour, to cherish and celebrate, for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.

In another lifetime almost, when she was just Mirjana Lucic, the Croat was one of the rising stars of women’s tennis. When just 15, she clinched the Australian Open women’s doubles title in 1998; the previous year, in her first ever professional tournament, she had won the Croatian Ladies Open. In 1999, she took out Monica Seles, then ranked No. 4, on her way to the semifinals at Wimbledon, where she went down in three sets to Steffi Graf.

Lucic had set stall as one for the future, alongside two young women who also shared centrestage with her in Melbourne on Thursday. Venus and Serena Williams have since gone on to greater things – between them, they have a staggering 29 Grand Slam singles crowns – while Lucic’s remained a career unfulfilled, a promise unrealised.

And a life less explored.

Towards the middle of 1998, Mirjana, her four siblings and their mother fled from Croatia to the United States to escape a tyrannical father whom she accused at that time of physically and mentally terrorising her for 10 years while coaching her towards potential tennis superstardom. “There have been more beatings than anyone can imagine,” she had said at that time. As expected, father Marinko, an Olympic decathlete who represented erstwhile Yugoslavia, countered, “I never used excessive force, and if I did give her the occasional slap, it was because of her behaviour; I did what I believe was best for my child.”

It was big news at that time as it should have been, too, but gradually, Mirjana Lucic faded from the public stage and, inevitably therefore, from public memory. She made residence in Sarasota, Florida, and remained anonymous for over a half decade until returning to the WTA Tour in early 2007. It wasn’t an easy ride back; she had to scrap in qualifying competitions and even return to the Challenger circuit, and while there was the occasional spectacular upset as you would expect of someone with such exceptional skills, the rust, time away from the game and the rapidity with which the women’s game had developed seemed to have overwhelmed her.

By now Lucic-Baroni, Mirjana wasn’t giving up easily. She had won life’s biggest battle, and while it had scarred her, it hadn’t destroyed her. A few tennis matches were child’s play, almost. So what if there were no titles in the bag? The enjoyment and the fun of getting back on a tennis court and competing, chasing balls down and giving it a mighty thwack, was back. It was only a matter of time before the results started to stack up.

And they did, with 2014 as the breakthrough year. She made the pre-quarters of the US Open, taking out second seed Simona Halep along the way, and then won the Quebec City title a fortnight later. It was her first title since 1998, an extraordinary 16 years and four months later. The demons of the physical and mental abuse were temporarily exorcised, the financial problems that weighed her down in her youth an irksome, but no longer overwhelming memory.

Even so, few would have bargained for the hard-hitting Croat to carve her way through the draw at Melbourne Park in Australian Open 2017. As the top-ranked seeds tumbled like autumn leaves, the 34-year-old kept plugging away, an epochal march culminating in a semifinal match-up with Serena, the top seed who is now just one win away from becoming the most prolific women’s Grand Slam singles champion ever in the Open Era.

The fairytale had to end at some stage, of course. And it did at a packed Rod Laver Arena as Serena imposed her authority from the off. Lucic-Baroni knew she was outclassed but she never gave up; she was brushed aside in under an hour but as she and Serena embraced at the net for the longest of periods, it was clear that there was no winner and loser, no victor and vanquished.

“People relate to the champion,” Venus, the elder stateswoman these days, was to say later of her younger sibling’s exchange at the net with Lucic-Baroni. “They also relate to the person who didn’t win because we all have those moments in our life. I think why people love sport so much, is because you see everything in a line. In that moment, there is no do-over, there’s no retake, there is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real-time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it.”

Even in defeat, Lucic-Baroni was a massive winner, an extraordinary champion, an embodiment of the human spirit who, even if she never takes the court again, will remain the symbol of hope and fight and spunk and inspiration. It would have been easy for her to blame circumstances for her abrupt exit from the world stage nearly two decades back, but through sheer bloody-mindedness and the unshakeable belief that she wasn’t done yet, she has sent out the ultimate message – Never Give Up.

It’s a message that has pretty much been the sporting theme of the first month of this year. Serena herself, coming off a long injury layoff. Venus – ‘my life, my world’, the 35-year-old Serena said of her older-by-one-year sibling – who has been grappling with a rare illness for more than three years now. Roger Federer, the one-time benevolent dictator whose authority has been eroded by the younger turks. Rafael Nadal, still only 30 but a body ravaged beyond belief simply because his game is based around running balls down and whipping them over the net, neither facet particularly helped by recurring knee and wrist injuries.

And, as you look closer home, Yuvraj Singh. Ashish Nehra. Parthiv Patel. Men that captivated the cricket world when still not in their prime, but who had to make way for the ‘hep-yep’ brigade for one reason or the other. What is it that drives them to keep fighting on when all seems lost? What must be the motivation for Yuvraj, for instance, to put himself out there post his successful battle with cancer when he has already scaled the pinnacle in the limited-overs game? For Nehra, dodgy body and advancing years, practising a craft that isn’t necessarily the most rewarding if you are playing primarily in India? For Parthiv, boy wonder at 17 but nearly lost to international cricket by 22 when Mahendra Singh Dhoni arrived, equal parts rustic charm, rustic muscle and rustic cricket? And for Dhoni himself, Captain Cool and all, but now under increasing scrutiny every time he takes guard in the Virat Kohli era?

The widely held notion is that it is to prove a point. Possibly true, but to whom? Not to the world at large certainly, not to the fans and the critics, not to the teammates and the selectors, if only to a lesser extent. If they are looking to prove a point at all, it is to themselves. But no comeback can be fuelled only by a desire, however burning, to prove a point. The principal catalysts have to be unflagging commitment to one’s sport, an overriding passion that neither rebellious bodies nor punishing regimens, neither debilitating injuries nor unkind cuts of the sort Lucic-Baroni received, can dim.

On Saturday, Serena and Venus will stand across the net in a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2009. Should Serena win, it will be her 23rdmajor crown, sending Graf’s existing record into oblivion. Victory for Venus will mark her first Grand Slam title since Wimbledon 2008. For this dream match-up to eventuate, Lucic-Baroni’s stirring run had to end in the semis. Ah, sport! Cruel sport. Magical sport.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

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