It’s been the year of comebacks at Wimbledon 2012. Brian Baker’s run following years of injuries has lit up this year’s championships, as has the welcome return of Kim Clijsters after an injury-ravaged season. And today on Court 12, another fairytale story emerged when former teen prodigy Mirjana Lucic upset No.9 seed Marion Bartoli, her first trip to the third round at Wimbledon in a staggering 13 years.
The scream of delight from Lucic as she hit the last of 33 winners reverberated throughout SW19, signifying her joy at proving herself once again a force in the women’s game after years in the tennis wilderness.
“It’s amazing, I’m so happy and to win a match today against an amazing player, top 10, and who plays amazingly on this surface and has reached the finals here is really special,” she said.
“I knew that I would have to raise my level and play really well today and I was able to do that. I’ve been working really hard…so I’m really satisfied.”
It’s clear the hard work is paying off. Now 30 and arguably fitter and healthier than at any stage of her tumultuous 15-year career, Lucic used her booming serve and devastating power to full effect during the 6-4, 6-3 victory. Having come through qualifying, the Croat has now won five straight matches and finds herself in a winnable third-round match-up against 21st seed Roberta Vinci.
Her play evoked memories of her scintillating run through the draw here in 1999 when, as a wildcard ranked No.134, she romped past top-tenners Monica Seles and Nathalie Tauziat to reach the semi-finals. It took the might of Steffi Graf to stop her, in three sets no less.
Her defeat of Bartoli was her first top 10 victory since that fortnight. It was built around a solid start, in which she pinned the No.9 seed behind the baseline with her raking drives to establish a 4-1 lead. Bartoli dug herself out of trouble to level the scores, only for Lucic to clinch the set with another flurry of winners.
Against an opponent far more accustomed to playing at this elite level and despite the disruption of two poor line-calls that robbed her of winning points, Lucic showed admirable composure in the torrid early stages of the second set. Vociferously celebrating a service break in the sixth game, she maintained her advantage and never faltered when it came to closing out victory.
“It took me a couple of years back on tour after not playing for a long time to kind of get adjusted…it takes a couple of matches, winning a couple of tough matches and being a little more consistent,” Lucic observed. “I feel like I’m able to do that now. So I’m hoping I’m going to keep improving.”
Her tale is soap-operatic. Declared by Graf to be a better player than she herself had been at 15, the talented Croatian won back-to-back WTA titles in Bol in the late 1990s, performances followed closely by her Wimbledon run. Around the same time, she and her family fled her abusive father, and in late 2003 she disappeared from tennis – reportedly the result of ongoing personal and financial turmoil – for several years.
But Lucic never gave up hope. She made a comeback in 2008, toiling on the ITF circuit with little success until she captured a title in Jackson in early 2010. It was her first tournament victory in 12 years and more success followed. She qualified for several tour-level events and re-entered the top 100 late in 2010. Her successful qualification at Wimbledon that year was her first main draw Grand Slam appearance in eight years.
Lucic said she didn’t want to go into detail about her off-court struggles. “I wasn’t doing much. I was just at home for the first time in my life since I was a little kid. I was just at home with my family. It was difficult. I wanted to play, I couldn’t, but it’s really nice to be back and have a chance again,” she said.
“I always knew I had the game and the talent and the heart and the will. So it was just a matter of getting those opportunities, and now that I have them, I’m really excited.”