Mirjana Lucic-Baroni has had many dark days so it was not hard to believe her when she described beating Simona Halep to reach the fourth round of the US Open as the best day of her life.
The 32-year-old qualifier stunned second seed Halep 7-6 (8/6) 6-2 and will play in the last 16 at a grand slam for the first time in 15 years.
Lucic-Baroni sobbed as she said: “It’s been really hard. After so many years, to be here again, it’s incredible.
“I wanted this so bad. So many times I would get to a place where I could do it. Then I wanted it so bad that I kind of burned out. I’m so happy.”
A title winner at 15 and Wimbledon semi-finalist by 17, Lucic-Baroni’s burgeoning career was derailed by off-court problems.
In 1998, she and her mother and siblings fled their native Croatia for the United States to escape father and coach Marinko, who she alleges physically and verbally abused her from a young age.
Although she went on to have her great run at Wimbledon in 1999, beating Monica Seles before losing narrowly to Steffi Graf, Lucic-Baroni’s success petered out.
Financial problems limited the amount she could play and she contested only two professional matches between 2004 and 2006.
But Lucic-Baroni was determined that her personal misfortune would not stop her playing tennis and in 2007 she began the long road back.
She has battled away on the lower rungs of the tennis ladder, returning to the grand slam stage in 2010 after a gap of eight years.
“I didn’t get wildcards, I didn’t get to just pick nice events and play,” she said. “I played qualifying of every not-awesome tournament there is everywhere in the world.
“I worked my way back and I earned it. Then when I got to grand slams, I wanted it so bad that when I would get my chance on a big court against a big player, I kind of was paralysed.
“I couldn’t do it. It was always like, ‘Okay, how many more do I have? I have to do it now. I have to do it now’. I finally relaxed and I said, ‘Just play tennis’. It’s the best day of my life.”
Lucic-Baroni watched 15-year-old American Cici Bellis playing her second-round match on Thursday and was taken back to her own days as a teenage prodigy.
She said: “I remember it was really exciting, but back then it was so normal. I was so young and I was so good and I was winning so much that, even though it’s exciting, it wasn’t really a big deal. It was just a natural progression.
“And now it’s just amazing. Every round is amazing. Every round I look forward to. I know I sound like and I feel like a little kid, like this is the first time it’s ever happening. I love the feeling.”
Halep had reached at least the quarter-finals at every other grand slam this season, losing to Maria Sharapova in the French Open final.
There was also disappointment for Venus Williams, who served for the match against Sara Errani before losing a bizarre contest 6-0 0-6 7-6 (7/5).
Remarkably, it is the second time Williams has lost a match at Flushing Meadows having lost the first set to love and won the second to love – she was also beaten by Kim Clijsters in 2009.
Errani put her finger to her lips after her win but insisted she was not unhappy with the crowd, saying: “I’ve never heard the crowd that strong. I was shaking.
“It was unbelievably good. I think I will remember forever that moment. I don’t know why I did that. I was not angry. It was with the tension, with the adrenaline in my body.”
Lucic-Baroni will play Errani in the fourth round.
It was a day of shocks, and another arrived on Court 17 where 17-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic knocked out sixth seed Angelique Kerber 6-1 7-5.
Bencic, who works with Martina Hingis’ mother Melanie Molitor, said: “I played a really good match right from the start, and then I had a little bit of a time-out in the second set.
“But I’m happy that I came back. Last year I played juniors here, and this year I’m in the fourth round. So it’s incredible.”
In her first visit to the last 16 at a grand slam, Bencic will play eighth seed Jelena Jankovic, who dispatched Sloane Stephens’ conqueror Johanna Larsson for the loss of one game.
Peng Shuai followed up her victory over fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in round two by defeating 28th seed Roberta Vinci 6-4 6-3.