The Woman Who Can Fully Appreciate Serena Williams' Greatness
The year was 1998, and women's tennis was in the middle of a power shift.
A 16-year-old Martina Hingis had won three of the four majors in 1997, and a few other bold teens were knocking on the door, including hard-hitting Serena Williams and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Williams and Lucic-Baroni played each other twice that year, but incredibly, the two 33-year-olds haven't matched up again since.
"It's surprising, but she can stay on the other side of the draw," said Lucic-Baroni, who is currently ranked 48th. "It's OK."
Lucic-Baroni actually was slated to face Williams in the second round of the US Open, but the Croatian was tripped up by qualifier Kiki Bertens in three sets in her opening match.
So while she still hasn't faced Williams in nearly two decades, if anyone can appreciate Williams' longevity and accomplishments, it's Lucic-Baroni. They both cracked the top 100 in 1997, when Lucic-Baroni was 15 and Williams was 16, and both are there today.
Lucic-Baroni was the first player to win both the first WTA singles event and the first WTA doubles event she competed in (the doubles title was the 1998 Australian Open, in which Hingis was her partner). But her star was soon outshone by Williams, who won her first Grand Slam at the 1999 US Open and climbed all the way to No. 1 by 2002.
"It's sort of impossible to be No. 1 for how many years now and start when she started and still be here dominating," Lucic-Baroni said. "I mean, no one can beat her. OK, she can have an off day here and there, but what she has done in the last decade or even more, it's incredible effort. Especially in today's tennis -- it's so physical and she's so above and beyond stronger and bigger than everybody -- and obviously mentally tough to last that long."
While Williams' physical ability is obvious, Lucic-Baroni said that the mental component is also instrumental to staying competitive for such a long period. Lucic-Baroni used to travel with her sister to combat the loneliness of being on the road and to have someone who could help her relax and step away from tennis. Even with that pressure-relief valve, Lucic-Baroni still took almost five years off in the mid-2000s before coming back to the WTA, while Williams has been active every year since 1997.
"You can never know how something is going to go," Lucic-Baroni said. "Injuries or life or whatever gets in the way, and if you would have told anybody back then that she would still be here and doing what she's doing and not just winning but dominating, I think everybody would have said, 'No way, it's not possible.' But she's proved it to be."
When the players first met in 1998, Lucic-Baroni won the first set in a round-of-32 match in Sydney before Williams came back to win 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. Then, coming off a battle with chicken pox, Lucic-Baroni was even at 3-3 in the first set with Williams in the second round of Wimbledon before she ran out of steam and the American won the final nine games.
Having faced both Steffi Graf and Williams in Grand Slams, Lucic-Baroni has a unique perspective on which one is the greatest tennis player of all time.
Born in Germany, Lucic-Baroni said her idol was Graf, who defeated Lucic-Baroni in three sets in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1999 and in two sets in the third round of the 1998 US Open. But for the first time, she now thinks Graf has been surpassed.
"Serena is taking her title away," Lucic-Baroni said. "It's just facts. She's one Grand Slam away [Graf has 22 Grand Slam titles, Williams 21]. You can't really compare tennis now to other decades... but for [Williams] to be able to start that long ago and still dominate, I think she takes that spot. For me personally, it will always be Steffi because I grew up watching her and loving to watch her play, but Serena is amazing."
You don't have to be on the other side of the net to appreciate that.