By Melanie Burton
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Croatia's Mirjana Lucic-Baroni could barely contain her joy after reaching the Australian Open semi-finals on Wednesday, 19 years after her only previous singles match win at Melbourne Park prior to her remarkable run.
Her march to the last four has been powered by the sheer grit and determination the world number 79 has built up over years of struggle both on and off the court, leaving her forced to start from the bottom when she returned to the game in 2008.
After a promising start to her career that saw her reach the main draw of the U.S. Open at the age of 15 and the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1999, personal troubles, including alleged abuse from her father, sent her into a tailspin.
"I know this means a lot to every player to reach the semi-finals. But to me this is overwhelming,I will never, never forget this day and this last couple of weeks," she said, fighting back the tears.
"This has truly made my life and everything that happened okay.
"The fact I was this strong and could fight this hard is incredible. I kind of want to be known as amazing fighter, a person who persevered against everything, against all odds. And that's what I take pride in."
The 34-year-old did indeed show plenty of perseverance as she navigated her way through three sets against fifth seed Karolina Pliskova, looking every bit the battle-hardened warrior with her left leg bandaged in two places.
In what was far from a clean victory, the German-born right-hander lost seven service games and took an injury time out halfway through the third set, shattering Pliskova's momentum just as her opponent had gained an upper hand.
The revitalized Croat won 12-of-13 points on her return and hung a rosary around her neck before serving for the match then crossed herself in the Roman Catholic tradition after sealing victory.
"When I took the medical timeout, I wasn't really sure how I was feeling," she said. "I felt in that moment only God can help me. It was just something I didn't think about. It was just something that helped me be strong."
When Pliskova netted a forehand to signal the end of the contest, the Croatian clenched her fists, sank to her knees and sobbed.
"I can't believe this, this is crazy," she said.
Lucic-Baroni is well aware that the next fight will be the toughest of her tennis career when she lines up opposite six-times Australian Open champion Serena Williams on Thursday for a place in the final.
"She's a great champion," Lucic-Baroni added. "I'm still in the tournament, and I want to remain kind of calm and focused and give another really good performance tomorrow."
(Editing by John O'Brien)