A Welcome Return to Success for Mirjana Lučić
For many players, winning a match at one of the Grand Slam tournaments is an achievement.
Outside of the top players, working your way through qualifying and reaching the main draw is the target—to record that victory in the first round is a wonderful feeling.
However, for one woman in the draw this year, that win was even more special.
As Mirjana Lučić heard the announcement ‘Game, Set and Match, Lučić’, she celebrated her first victory at a Grand Slam tournament for over eight years. For a former child prodigy, it represented a major step on the long and difficult road to recovery.
In her early career, she was viewed as one of the future greats of the game. She had the technical ability to reach the very top and her status as a poster girl for resilience and survival due to her background and upbringing made her one of the hot commodities of the time.
However, instead of glory, her career is a story of despair, betrayal and heartbreak, but punctuated by a desire never to give in. It was this burning ambition to return to the big stage that kept her going through the dark times, and it is wonderful to see her back and enjoying her tennis once again.
“There’s nothing worse than knowing you can play and being healthy, and you are just watching because you don’t have the money (to train and hire a coach).”
For a player who had such success in the early part of her career to find herself in such a situation is tragic. Through no real fault of her own, all she ever owned was taken away from her and she was forced to rebuild her career through local tournaments.
Unable to afford to travel, she was restricted to playing only the occasional tournament close to home.
However, despite this, she maintained the desire to reach the higher echelons of the game once again:
“My time on the court will come again, I promise you that. Everybody on the outside may think ‘Oh, she’ll never do it, she’s been away too long,’ but nobody can put limitations on you but yourself.”
Back in late 1996, she announced her potential to the world by winning the Junior US Open at the age of only 14, following that up with victory in the Junior Australian Open the following January. Ranked the best junior player in the world at such a young age, she turned professional in April 1997, aged only 15.
In her first ever tournament in Bol, she stunned the field to collect the trophy, returning to defend it 12 months later. Things continued to go well for the young Lučić as she reached the final of her second tournament, only being defeated by Steffi Graf.
Her first taste of Grand Slam success came less than 12 months after turning professional when she won the Australian Open Doubles title, becoming part of the youngest ever professional Grand Slam team with the 18-year-old Martina Hingis, in her first ever doubles event. Further success was to follow as she reached the final of the 1998 Wimbledon Mixed Doubles with doubles expert, Mahesh Bhupati.
However, despite her career appearing to be on an almost unstoppable upward trajectory, it was around this time that her personal problems off the court began to take over. Her relationship with her father, Marinko, had always been abusive.
She admitted that the first time that her father had hit her was when she was only five years old, following a defeat in a tennis tournament to a girl five years older than her:
“My father smacked me in the nose. I was bleeding all over the house. I had no clue what was going on. I was in complete shock. After that, it was pretty much the same old thing, all the time.”
The abuse was not to stop for the rest of her childhood.
She has said that when he beat her around the head with his heavy Timberland shoe, she occasionally could not brush her hair for a week due to the pain.
One of the most terrifying experiences was when she was 14 years old: She had fallen in training ahead of a junior tournament in Milan. Ignoring the advice of the doctors, she played in the tournament, only reaching the semi-finals. When she returned home, her father dragged her into the bathtub and beat her for almost 40 minutes.
Her relationship with her father came to a head only days before Wimbledon in 1998—following a heated argument, she claims her father threatened to kill her mother and lunged at her. Mirjana says she snapped, cursing her father with every word she could think of, and fleeing the apartment with her mother.
As luck would have it, they ran into Goran Ivanisevic, a fellow Croatian tennis player. He insisted they stay with him and he put her up during the tournament. She admitted that Goran probably saved her life. Ivanisevic had his own views on Marinko Lučić:
“Whether she won or lost, he was not happy. He was never happy. I saw how bad he talked to her. I would break down if somebody talked to me like that. In my opinion, what he did, he ruined her life. To hit her? This is the 21st century, not 200 years ago.”
After returning to Zagreb, Lučić’s life was to change forever. On the 4th July, Andelka Lučić and her five children crept out of a Zagreb hotel room in the early hours of the morning, jumping into a waiting car. They were taken into hiding in the countryside whilst political asylum was arranged. Mirjana had to no-show a vital Fed Cup match for Croatia.
On the 23rd July, after 19 days of hiding, they arrived back at Zagreb International Airport, flanked by half a dozen armed guards to fly to their new life in the USA. In her own words, “it was like something out of a James Bond movie, except that it was our lives.”
However, her father had taken all but $23k that she had earned in her career by that stage, and said that he would ruin her career, and force her to come crawling back to him.
How she could concentrate on her career given the events off-the-court is impressive.
However, the following year, she achieved her best ever Grand Slam performance, when she reached the semi-final at Wimbledon, beating 9-time Grand Slam champion, Monica Seles, and saved match points to beat the previous year’s finalist, Nathalie Tauziat.
However, another off-the-court situation was arising that threatened her ability to play on the tour; late in 1998, three months before she turned 17, she signed a deal with IMG—the international management giant and the most powerful force in the sport; however, over the following years, the relationship rapidly soured into a bitter dispute with IMG suing her for repayment of $83k that was advanced and initiating foreclosure on her condominium in the gated IMG Sports Academy. In response, Lučić counter-sued on the grounds that the agency had breached its fiduciary responsibility.
She also argued that IMG had been the instrument of her systematic financial destruction since 1998. Furthermore, she alleged that IMG agent, Gavin Forbes, had been working in conjunction with Marinko, her father, to ruin her tennis career because she had fled Croatia. The agreement had come about as part of a deal that Marinko would push promising junior players to IMG. Both Marinko and IMG deny this.
She claims that she was first approached by Gavin Forbes, who told her that they could increase her existing deals fivefold. Following her impressive Wimbledon run, she was told that Nike had proposed a lucrative 3-year sponsorship deal worth around $330k per year.
However, IMG advised her not to sign the deal, as they felt she could negotiate for more. Forbes claimed he could increase the deal to around $500k per year by signing deals for a few junior players with Nike. However, Nike pulled the deal, and Forbes claimed she was demanding $1m per endorsement.
During her period of financial problems following her fall from the top of the game, she arranged a loan with an investment banker from Texas for $50k per year for a period of five years, to put toward the costs of coaching and travelling. However, she claims the deal fell through because Gabriel Jaramillo, the director of tennis at the IMG Academy, had called the banker and explained “how poorly Mirjana had managed her financial affairs.”
The final part of her claims against IMG concerned a situation where she argues that IMG sent her to a psychiatrist, who put her on Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant, against her will. She said that it made her feel lethargic and fuzzy, but that she had to take it, and it affected her tennis performances.
Against this background, her tennis career began to go into decline. From her career high ranking of 32 in 1999, her year-end ranking plummeted to 202 in 2000, and dropped down further to 335 in 2003.
Immigration problems and a worry that she would run into her father forced her to skip several big European tournaments in 2000, and her weight ballooned over the next year, putting on around 50 pounds—a by-product of the stress, she claimed. Her last win on the senior tour was to come in the second round of qualifying for Wimbledon in 2003.
Despite never giving up hope of a return to the higher levels of tennis, her financial problems took centre stage and in both 2005 and 2006, she was limited to only one tournament a year. Without the estimated $100k that it would have cost to travel part-time with a coach, she simply could not afford to play on the tour.
However, the first glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel came in March 2007, when she was awarded a wild card entry into the Indian Wells WTA Tier I event. She recorded her first tour win for almost four years, with a victory over American Lindsey Nelson before losing in straight sets to eighth seed, Anna Chakvetadze.
Nonetheless, the fact remained that she was back in the winning habit.
She went on to play in a couple of clay court tournaments in Rome, beating a young Elena Vesnina in qualifying, but could no longer afford to play in any further tournaments. She did not play again until February 2008.
She entered qualifying events to try and reach the tournament proper, but with the exception of a couple of events, she struggled. The highlight of the year was a quarter-final appearance in a small tournament in Florence, where she lost to Jelena Dokic.
2009 followed a similar pattern. Her ranking lay below 300, making it difficult for her to gain entry to tournaments, except through wild cards.
However, in September, she went one step further, reaching the semi-final of a small tournament in Las Vegas, before following it up with her first final appearance for over six years as she lost to Rossana De Los Rios in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
Still not giving up hope, 2010 saw her ranking slowly begin to climb back. Passing into the top 300 in January, before an encouraging series of results in April and May saw her return to the top 200. In Jackson, she finally sealed her first tournament win for 12 years, since retaining her title in Bol, after beating Jamie Hampton in the final to secure the winner’s cheque of $25k.
Wimbledon marked another major landmark as she finally qualified for her first Grand Slam event in eight years, and despite a straight sets defeat to Victoria Azarenka, to her it felt like winning the tournament itself.
Buoyed by this, she qualified for a series of WTA events in both Palermo and Stanford, before winning three matches to qualify for the US Open. As we saw, she won through a tight first set before coming through the second 6-1. Her reaction when she sealed the win showed how much it meant to her. Despite losing, her close friend Alicia Molik’s reaction also spoke volumes.
The second round match against fourth seed, Jelena Jankovic, was expected to be a stroll for the Serb. However, Lučić began to show glimpses of her former self, as she took the match to a third and deciding set. Despite losing, her ranking shot up once again to 118.
It is a tragedy that she was never able to live up to her early potential. She will never get back to the level she once played at. However, it is nice to see that she has finally rediscovered the happiness of playing.
“Every match I win now, it’s like winning an entire tournament. Every match gives me such satisfaction. I enjoy it so much. Just the fact that I have the ability to do it again, I’m really happy out there.”