Lucic-Baroni, Brady take different paths to success at slams
MELBOURNE: For both the veteran, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, and the newcomer, Jennifer Brady, it's a completely unexpected position to be in: Playing for a spot in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
How they ended up here, however, couldn't be more dramatically different.
Lucic-Baroni has been on this stage before, another lifetime ago, when she made a dream run to the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1999 at the age of 17. Soon after, she was out of the sport entirely and was forced to spend years scraping her way back to the majors.
Brady, meanwhile, is experiencing everything for the first time — winning a match at a major, telling her life story at packed news conferences.
Now, one will advance to the quarters — a spot neither could have imagined at the start of the year.
"One of my goals, actually, was in the next couple years to be playing in the second week of a Grand Slam," Brady said after her 7-6 (4), 6-2 upset of 14th-seeded Elena Vesnina on Saturday. "I wrote it down and told myself, you know. I said it, but I didn't say it confidently."
Brady has certainly had the more traditional tennis upbringing. She summed it up very succinctly after her win — her life story in 53 words.
"I was born in Pennsylvania. Just picked up a tennis racket, I guess, and moved to Florida when I was nine. Not for tennis, but, you know, it ended up working out. Went to the Evert Tennis Academy. Went to college. Played two years. Now this is starting my second year on tour."
It's actually a bit more complex than that.
The 21-year-old Brady has been groomed for tennis success from a young age. She tried balancing college at UCLA and the pro circuit for a while, but after racking up wins and improving her ranking, she devoted herself to tennis full-time.
"I just felt like it was time," she said earlier this week. "I felt like I was ready to come out and play."
Brady also has the support of the US Tennis Association to fall back on. Before coming to Australia, she spent four weeks training at the USTA's new national training center in Florida, a $100 million, state-of-the-art campus with more than 100 courts of every variety.
It's the kind of facilities Lucic-Baroni would have dreamed of when she emigrated from Croatia to the US in the late 1990s.
Lucic-Baroni, now 34, burst on the scene in 1997 by winning the first WTA tournament she ever entered at age 15. Months later, she captured the Australian Open doubles title with Martina Hingis.
After her surprising run at Wimbledon, though, her career rapidly spiraled. By 2003, she was forced to stop playing because of financial hardships — a dark period she still doesn't like to discuss.
The way back up to the elite level started with $68 paychecks at minor tournaments in Florida and Alabama.
"I think many would give up, and I really take a lot of pride in that, because it was really hard. I didn't get (any) wildcards, I didn't get any special treatment. I really had to do it on my own, and I had to fight so hard for it," she said.
She waited 19 years to get a second win at Melbourne Park this week, and after beating Maria Sakkari 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 on Saturday, she's now into the round of 16.
"My career has been so long and stop and go," she said. "Every win, it really is a big deal for me. It is like winning a tournament."