NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Croatian Mirjana Lucic reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1999 as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, she was tipped as a future star of women’s tennis.
Just four years later, she was all but gone from the tour, the victim of an abusive father and seemingly destined to go down as a footnote in the sport’s history.
But on Tuesday at a sweltering Flushing Meadows, the 28-year-old Lucic was back and all smiles after earning her first grand-slam victory in more than eight years with a 7-6 6-1 first-round win over Australian Alicia Molik.
“I feel fantastic,” Lucic told reporters. “I’m so, so happy. I worked so hard to get here. This is my first U.S. Open in, I don’t know, seven years or something. It feels incredible. It just feels so rewarding.
Lucic burst onto the scene in 1997 as a 15-year-old when she won the title in her first tour event.
She reached the final in her next tournament in Strasbourg and was so impressive that Steffi Graf, who beat her, said she was better than she had been at the same age.
Lucic won her only grand-slam title at the Australian Open the following year, taking the doubles crown in partnership with Martina Hingis.
But after the high of Wimbledon in 1999, it soon became clear that all was not well in the Lucic family.
Estranged from her abusive father, she was beset by personal and financial problems and it took her until 2007 before she began to make positive moves in the rankings again.
“I grew up winning since I was six years old,” she said. “Once that has been taken away from you for years and you haven’t had that feeling, (to get it back) is incredible.”
Having won three matches in qualifying to get to the main draw, her win over Molik - her first grand-slam victory since the 2002 French Open - will lift her several places from her current ranking of 150.
She still has a long way if she is going to return to near her career-high of 32 but she is simply delighted to be back.
“Every match I win now, it’s like winning an entire tournament,” she said. “Every match gives me such satisfaction. I really enjoy it so much.
“I just love it out there. I’m doing what I love and I know that there is still a lot of good tennis in me, a lot of good results. That’s what’s pushing me.”
Editing by Frank Pingue