The 2017 season saw Mirjana Lucic-Baroni find her fairytale ending, but her story is far from over.
At 34 years old, the Croatian former prodigy ended a nearly two-decade drought when she stormed into her second career Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open - ousting top seeds Agnieszka Radwanska and Karolina Pliskova en route.
Lucic-Baroni, now 35, is set to start a season in the Top 40 for the first time in the odyssey she calls a career; check out six reasons why the veteran will once again be one to watch in 2018.
1. She starts next season at the site of her career renaissance.
Lucic-Baroni had long been an upset artist in the years since reclaiming her place in the WTA universe - her undefeated record against World No.1 Simona Halep at Grand Slam tournaments speaks for itself.
Melbourne was another act entirely; she followed up her thudding win over Radwanska with a scrappy victory over the fast-rising Maria Sakkari, and ousted an in-form Jennifer Brady to book the clash against Brisbane champion Pliskova.
Typically stoic in the face of triumph, Lucic-Baroni let out years of emotion on Rod Laver Arena, feelings that keep her warm during an intense off-season in Sarasota.
“It’s in your bones,” she said in a phone interview last week. “I’m never going to forget those matches. It’s very ingrained, deep inside. All I have to do is remember and I have that really amazing feeling. That gives me a lot of motivation for this year.
“Sometimes when I have a hard time in the gym, when I can’t move anymore and I’m dead, my fitness coach Blaine Bott has a really good way of motivating me, reminding me of the matches. Sometimes he’ll even put a couple minutes of my matches just to get me motivated. After that, it’s like ‘Okay, that’s right, let’s go.’ I feel a lot of energy, and I get a lot of positive energy from those matches.”
Before returning to the Australian Open, first comes the Australian summer, and appearances in Brisbane and Sydney, where she fell in qualifying over a year ago.
2. An early end to this season leaves Lucic-Baroni fresh and ready for the next.
Far from a one week wonder, the Croat continued her impressive form for much of the first quarter, reaching the semifinals at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel, the quarterfinals of the Miami Open, and the semifinals of the Volvo Car Open on green clay. By the time the tour turned to clay, she was a Top 20 player and in contention for a debut appearance at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
It was at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia - a tournament where she made the final four back in 1998 - where it all went wrong. After a hard-fought battle with Maria Sharapova, a shoulder injury sprung up and stunted her preparation for the French Open, keeping her off the court for much of the next few months and culminating in a heartbreaking defeat at the US Open.
“I got injured just before the end of the second set against Carla Suárez Navarro, and I pulled out of doubles, which was really tough. I hated to do that, because Andrea Petkovic and I have so much fun on court. I couldn’t lift my shoulder, or even my arm. It was not the best way to end, but it was the right move.”
3. That time off the court has been dedicated to an even heavier fitness regime.
You don’t play well into your 30s without maintaining your physicality - “Look at my legs!” she joked to Rennae Stubbs in Australia - but Lucic-Baroni promises an even higher level of fitness heading into 2018.
“I’m having a really great prep, doing crazy tough fitness, really doing a lot more off the court than on, because of the shoulder.
“Physically I feel like I’m fitter than I was last year. I feel really good, so that’s really exciting for me. I’m just kind of hoping that once I start playing, the shoulder will cooperate a little better. I’m really excited to start playing tournaments again, because it feels like it’s been forever.”
She credits the daily work to Bott, who has been in charge of pre-seasons with the former World No.20 for the last three years, and also works with her between tournaments.
“He’s really great. He pushes me really hard, but in a positive way. He gives me a lot of good energy and makes the workouts very challenging, but they’re also fun, so I like the challenge. And it’s not easy, you’re an athlete at 35, and it’s not easy on the body, recovery is different, but I feel like I’m a 25-year-old. I feel really fit, I feel better than ever. That makes you feel amazing going into a new season.
“You still have some mornings, especially Friday morning, the worst day of the week, when you’re dead and you have the hardest workout ahead of you. But it’s still really nice, because he does a few things and gets me motivated, you know, makes me want to have some great results again. I’ve been working incredibly hard, but it’s been fun. I’m really itching to go on court and play and try to get some more big results. That’s my biggest motivation.”
4. Lucic-Baroni will take a slightly modified team Down Under.
Coach Marin Bradaric teamed up with the veteran last November, but a growing family will keep the Croat from traveling to start next season.
“My coach is about to have a baby, so he’s actually not going with me to Australia. We’re adding another guy. There’s going to be two of them who switch in between. Marin will stay with the family for a month, and they’re going to switch somewhere around Indian Wells. I wouldn’t call it as much a change, but more like a little addition, let’s say.”
5. Her 2018 goals boil down to two things: good health and big results.
“At this point, it’s not about ranking,” Lucic-Baroni said. “It’s just about going out there and really enjoying myself, playing some big matches, and playing some good matches. I want big results; that’s the reason why I do it. That’s what motivates me, the chance of doing that, and that’s why I’m preparing as hard as I am right now. That’s really the reason why I still do it, those good results, and the opportunities to make them. The best I can do is prepare and then go there, and hopefully have another great season. But health is really what I focus on the most. That’s where my focus is.”
6. Before she leaves home, she has one last family feast on the menu.
For all the challenges she’s faced, being surrounded by delicious food would certainly be characterized as “a good problem to have”. Such will be the case when Lucic-Baroni - herself an accomplished cook - and husband, restaurateur Daniele Baroni, blend families for a Croatian-Italian Christmas dinner.
“There’s a bit of everything. It’s an enormous feast, let’s put it that way. With my whole family, husband, sisters, all the family’s kids. It’s really beautiful. There’s no chance that I could ever leave before Christmas, so I have to wait till the 26th.
“My family would disown me if I left before Christmas. No chance. But yeah, it’s a big event. We go to church the night before, at midnight mass. It’s a big deal for us, for sure.”