Serena Williams takes on Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on Thursday in the semi-finals of the 2017 Australian Open.
It’s up to Serena Williams to end the fairy-tale run of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the Australian Open semifinals as the pair play for the first time in 19 years.
Yes, you read that right – 19 years have elapsed since Serena Williams and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, both teenage phenoms, played their two matches against each other, Williams winning in three sets in Sydney and 6-3, 6-0 in the second round of Wimbledon.
It’s extraordinary how the fates of these two women have diverged since then – but even more extraordinary that they have met again, 19 years later, in the semifinals of the Australian Open. Croatia’s Lucic-Baroni, who was the fifth youngest woman ever to win a WTA title when she won Bol in 1997, hit a career-high ranking of world no. 32 in 1998 and, in 1999, made a run to the Wimbledon semifinals.
Lucic-Baroni’s career went into a tailspin shortly afterwards as the result of an abusive father, injuries and personal turmoil, with her ranking bottoming out outside the top 400 in 2008 and 2009. Lucic-Baroni grimly worked her way back and her persistence was rewarded with a remarkable run at the US Open in 2014, where she qualified for the tournament before beating Garbine Muguruza, Shahar Peer and second seed Simona Halep to reach the fourth round at a Grand Slam for the first time since that 1999 Wimbledon run. Lucic-Baroni went on to beat Venus Williams in the final of Quebec City in 2014, setting a record for the longest gap between titles – April 1998 to September 2014 – in WTA Tour history, eclipsing Kimiko Date-Krumm’s record of 13 years and one month.
Lucic-Baroni has stayed in the top 100 ever since, defeating Halep to make the third round of the French Open in 2015 and finishing runner-up in Strasbourg in 2016, but her Australian Open run has come out of nowhere. Lucic-Baroni lost in the second round of Auckland to Ostapenko and in Sydney qualifying to Kateryna Bondarenko, and famously hadn’t won a main-draw singles match at the Australian Open since 1998, but the Croatian veteran’s big game should always command respect – as she has reminded us this fortnight. Lucic-Baroni opened with a three-set win over Anett Kontaveit, before blasting shell-shocked third seed Agnieszka Radwanska off the court 6-3, 6-2 in the second run in a hailstorm of winners. She benefited then from a more open draw, taking out Maria Sakkari and surprise fourth-round entrant Jennifer Brady, but in the quarterfinals against Karolina Pliskova she faced one of the most in-form players in the draw and outlasted her, winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in emotional scenes.
Lucic-Baroni turned to prayer to make it through the match due to her left leg injury, which is heavily strapped on thigh and calf, and doesn’t bode well for a thrilling contest against Serena Williams – but then not much does.
While Lucic-Baroni was struggling with family, injury and lapsing into semi-retirement before making her comeback, Williams was winning 22 Grand Slams (although not without her own struggles – one thing these women do have in common is just how well they understand adversity).
‘We both have gone through a lot. We both have survived, and here we are, which I think is a really remarkable story,’ Williams said.
Williams has yet to drop a set at this year’s Australian Open despite less than perfect preparation, and although her first serve hasn’t been firing as she would have wished, the rest of her game has been looking very sharp in straight-sets wins over Belinda Bencic, Lucie Safarova, Nicole Gibbs, Barbora Strycova and finally Johanna Konta, ending the British player’s ten-match winning streak with a 6-2, 6-3 win on Wednesday.
‘My first serve wasn't really great, but I've really been working on my second serve. Hasn't been great all tournament, so I've been kind of relying on my second serve. Also my whole game. I've been relying on my groundstrokes, forehand, backhand. My returns have really picked up,’ Williams said after beating Konta.
Remarkable and emotional as Lucic-Baroni’s run has been, it’s so very difficult to see it extending beyond Thursday’s semifinals. Williams is right to say that their games are very different now and so one shouldn’t read too much into the American’s pair of wins in 1998, but this is the tenth major in a row that Williams has made the semifinals or better and while she’s fallen short in New York, I doubt that nerves are going to become an extreme problem for her in Australia in the same way. Lucic-Baroni is an enviably big and clean hitter, but she doesn’t have Williams’s athleticism nor variety and she’s physically compromised with less than 24 hours to recover from a three-set match that took its toll on her injured leg. Williams might not be serving as well as she wants to be, but the rest of her game looks more than good enough to see her past Lucic-Baroni and into her eighth Australian Open final.