Melbourne: "Tough cookie" Mirjana Lucic-Baroni wound back the clock Monday to make her first Grand Slam quarter-final in 18 years, extending a stunning comeback for the former child prodigy.
The unseeded Croat last got this far at a major tournament at Wimbledon in 1999, where she lost to Steffi Graf, before personal problems and injuries derailed her career.
She now gets another crack at the last four after sweeping past American qualifier Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-2 at the Australian Open, with Karolina Pliskova up next.
"It's pure joy. There's no other feeling than bliss," said Lucic-Baroni, who screeched with joy and jumped up and down to celebrate the win.
"I always said I have the game. But to work so hard and make so many sacrifices, I hope no one is going to pinch me and wake me up because this is just incredible.
"I am a tough little cookie and really stubborn, when I want something I will work hard and do anything I need to get it. What a satisfaction," she added.
The 34-year-old, who stunned third seed Agnieszka Radwanska in round two, made her debut at the US Open in 1997 aged just 15 and teamed with Martina Hingis to win the 1998 Australian Open women's doubles.
In 1999, at 17, she went to the Wimbledon semi-finals, but it all fell apart soon after as she was engulfed by heartbreaking personal issues.
In the background back then was tough, demanding father Marinko who, Lucic-Baroni later revealed, dished out regular beatings -- although he described them as "slaps" that were "best for the child".
Eventually Mirjana, her mother Andelka and four siblings fled their Croatia home in the dead of night for the sanctuary of the United States.
The drama, however, put the brakes on a journey which should have led to fame and fortune as financial problems forced her to put a career on a backburner.
Lucic-Baroni disappeared from top-level tennis for most of the 2003-2010 period, before slowly working her way back via lower-tier tournaments.
"I had a rough patch in my life early on but I am really blessed with the family I have," she said.
Asked what advice she would give to young players facing hardships, she replied: "I'm going to get fined but F everything, if there's something you want to do, go and do it with your heart."
"I'm not giving up, I've picked up a few more battle wounds but I'm pushing on," she added.
Lucic-Baroni was a prodigy when the Williams sisters first began to make their mark in the 1990s. They too are also into the last eight at Melbourne Park with the Romanian on track to face Serena in the semi-finals.
Despite the emotional rollercoaster, Lucic-Baroni said she was not ready to call it a day just yet.
"I'm clicked in, for sure. I'm calm and focused now," she said. "The heart is a hundred percent, so that's all that matters."
Meanwhile, Karolina Pliskova dashed home hopes when she thrashed Daria Gavrilova. The fifth-seeded Czech shut out a partisan crowd on Rod Laver Arena to easily beat Australia's Gavrilova, nicknamed 'Dasha', 6-3, 6-3 and reach the last eight for the first time.
It sets her up for a showdown against Lucic-Baroni, the feel-good story of the tournament who is into her first Grand Slam quarter-final since Wimbledon in 1999.
The Croat, who dropped out of top-level tennis for most of the 2003-2010 period following heartbreaking personal problems, swept past American qualifier Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-2.
"I'm so excited to be in my first quarter-final. It's tough to play an Aussie girl, and I'm happy to fight to the last point," said Pliskova.
"I'm feeling confident, much better than I did in the Grand Slams before the US Open. Everything is going my way now."
After making the US Open final last year Pliskova has been tipped as a potential champion in Melbourne, although she was pushed all the way by Latvian teen Jelena Ostapenko in round three.
It was a fright for the tall Czech who, with her left thigh strapped, was aggressive from the start against Davrilova, breaking the nervous Australian straight away.
The power-hitting Czech sent down some big serves in the next game, with Gavrilova's forehand letting her down as she struggled to get into the match.
Pliskova was proving unplayable, dropping just two points in her opening two service games, before breaking Gavrilova, seeded 22, again to go 4-1 in front.
The crowd had something to cheer about when the 22-year-old broke back with Pliskova serving for the set, but the Czech still closed it out 6-3 in the next game.
Gavrilova, bidding to become the first Australian to reach the last eight since Jelena Dokic in 2009, refused to lie down and went 1-0 up with a break in the second set.
But the Moscow-born 22-year-old, who also made the fourth round last year, didn't have the firepower to match her opponent and errors crept in as she was swept aside in 73 minutes.
Looking ahead, Plisokova said facing Lucic-Baroni would not be easy.
"She is hitting big. It's going to be quick. I'll have to play aggressive, we'll see," she said of the 34-year-old, who stunned third seed Agnieszka Radwanska in round two.
With inputs from AFP
Published Date: Jan 23, 2017 16:55 PM | Updated Date: Jan 23, 2017 16:55 PM