The first thing Mirjana Lucic-Baroni did upon defeating Venus Williams 6-4, 6-3 in the Coupe Banque Nationale final was to whip out her cellphone and call her husband.
"I can't get a signal!" she laughed.
To win a tournament for the first time in 16 years, as the 32-year-old Croat now based in Florida did on Sunday in Quebec City, is an exercise in perseverance, patience and above all, stubbornness. As an added bonus, she and partner Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic returned to the court a short time later and won the doubles title.
We did it!!!C'mon!!thank you Mirjana for a great tournament!You are star in Quebec!Quebec is yours!! pic.twitter.com/xpmFgnz90V
— Lucie Hradecka (@lucik2105) September 14, 2014
At 16 years and four months, it was the longest gap between tournament wins in WTA Tour history. The previous record of 13 years and one month, by Kimiko Date-Krumm, came on both ends of a 12-year retirement from the tour; this was a completely different story.
She was in disbelief. "What an amazing week for me. Wow. … I’m incredibly happy. It’s been incredible. I really hope that nobody’s going to wake me up and tell me it was just a dream because this is just so perfect, and so amazing," she said on court during the trophy ceremony.
To her coach, Julian Alonso, she said this: "You believed in me when even I didn’t. And what a record we have. I look forward to so much more. I know we’re going to do big things. This is absolutely your doing."
Lucic was one of those teenage prodigies the likes of which, mercifully, we don't often see any more because of the gradual maturation of the women's game, Sixteen years ago – half her life ago – Lucic-Baroni fled Croatia with her mother and siblings to escape an abusive tennis father – a cliché, but too often true. She was the sole breadwinner, a tremendous amount of pressure for a mere teenager to handle.
She was so good, so young. Lucic-Baroni was the third player in the Open era to win two Grand Slam junior titles (the 1996 junior U.S. Open and 1997 Australian Open) before she turned 15. The other two were Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati. She was in that kind of distinguished company.
At her first pro event in 1996, she won the doubles title with American Chanda Rubin. At her first WTA Tour event in 1997 at home in Croatia, as an unranked qualifier who had just turned 15, she won the singles title. In her second, in Strasbourg, France, she got to the final and lost to Steffi Graf – a player she was often compared to, bore a striking physical resemblance to, and who said at the time that Lucic was much, much better at age 15 than she ever was.
In 1998, Lucic-Baroni won the Australian Open women's doubles title with Martina Hingis, at age 15. In 1999, she reached the Wimbledon semi-finals, again losing to Graf.
The years after the split from home and father were difficult. There were health woes, money woes, legal woes, periods of time when she didn't play at all (two small events between 2004 and 2006).
Lucic-Baroni and Venus Williams had met before, in another life. Their first meeting came in the first round of the 2002 U.S. Open.
It was arguably the worst loss of Lucic-Baroni's career – a 6-0, 6-0 dismantling at a time when Williams was at the height of her powers, ranked No. 2 in the world and the defending champion (she lost to the world No. 1, her sister Serena, in the final that year).
Lucic-Baroni, who had come out of the qualifying, was down to No. 214 and played just one match (an injury retirement at a small event) in the six months following that defeat.
But she hung in. Really, when you've done little else and began supporting your family before you had your Sweet Sixteen party, what else could you possibly know how to do?
Slowly but sure, she began winning matches. She briefly popped back into the top 100 at this time in 2010 – for the first time in a decade. It wasn't much, but it was a big step up.
This season, Lucic-Baroni lost in the first round of the first three Grand Slam tournaments. She lost in the qualifying of numerous other events. There were injury retirements - the tape job that snakes around her right shoulder has been omnipresent. There was an early bright spot; she qualified in Doha, defeated No. 21 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round – then had to retire after winning the first set against Agnieszka Radwanska.
She kept going, through seven consecutive first-round losses, until she got to the U.S. Open two weeks ago. And there was the breakthrough: Lucic-Baroni qualified, upset world No. 28 Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain in the first round, stunned No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the third round, and took No. 14 seed Sara Errani to a third set before running out of gas in the round-of-16.
On to Quebec City, a tournament she had played the last five years without ever getting past the second round. To the final, against the legendary Venus Williams. Down 1-3 in the first set, she took some advice from her coach on the next changeover and roared to life.
"She swung as hard as she could on every shot and hit so many lines. It's not typical that when you go for every shot they almost all go in. I think I played pretty well, but she just played better than me," Williams said. "She just had the magic today."
Coincidentally, coach Alonso has a Hingis connection. Now 37, the Spaniard was her first serious boyfriend, a long, long time ago, – a romance many thought derailed his promising career. He was the ATP Tour's newcomer of the year in 1997, once hit a 140-mph serve back in the days when few were doing that, and reached his career high of No. 51 shortly after his 21st birthday.
But he was out of the game by age 24, his early promise left unfulfilled. Perhaps it's that history that has made him such a key piece of the puzzle in Lucic-Baroni's resurgence.
With the win, Lucic-Baroni's ranking jumps to No. 56. And you get the sense she's not done yet.