Former phenom hits back at IMG, father in
struggle to get back to top of tennis world
BY WAYNE COFFEY
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
BRADENTON, Fla. - The photograph in Mirjana Lucic's hands is only seven years old, even if it sometimes seems from another lifetime. It shows her in the sun-baked afterglow of Wimbledon triumph, moments after defeating Nathalie Tauziat of France to move into the 1999 semifinals of the most fabled tennis tournament on Earth.
In the image, 17-year-old Lucic is pumping her fists, smiling broadly, stepping forward with strength and confidence, her long blonde hair hanging like a rope behind her. She was one of the foremost phenoms in tennis then, a 6-foot kid with punishing power and courage to match, having fled her native Croatia with her mother and four siblings a year before, to escape the lifelong beatings she says were inflicted on her by her father, Marinko Lucic.
Mirjana Lucic wasn't just an immensely promising player. She was a poster girl for resilience and survival, and that is precisely what she dreams of being again, after vanishing from the tour so completely you half expect her photo to turn up on a milk carton.
What's been the hardest part to deal with? The financial hardship that has limited her to a single tournament each of the last two years? The 50-pound weight gain? The bitter lawsuit against IMG, her former management company and the most powerful force in the sport, which she accuses of using medication, mind games and willful deceit to sabotage her career?
Or is it the sordid residue of her fractured home life, and the crushing burden of supporting an entire family before you are even of legal age?
Whatever the outcome of her dueling litigation with IMG, which sued her first for defaulting on promissory notes and emphatically denies all allegations, it's hard to think of another athlete who has been caught in a messier tangle of events, or who stands as a better example of the ugly underbelly of youthful stardom. The same management company that has made Maria Sharapova a marketing wunderkind - and quite likely the most recognized name in the sport - once had similar aspirations for Mirjana Lucic.
Then the victories stopped, the fighting started and a player once ranked No. 32 in the world fell so far out of sight that she doesn't even have a number next to her name in the Women's Tennis Association computer.
"The trouble that I've been through, I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," Lucic says, minutes after finishing a two-hour hitting session with her brother, Ivan, 18, on the green clay courts at the IMG Sports Academy here. She would have another two-hour hitting session, and then spend two hours in the gym later. She looks fit and strong, and says she wants nothing more than to return to her life on the pro circuit.
"There is nothing worse than knowing you can play and being healthy, and you are just watching because you don't have the money (to travel and hire a coach)," she says.
Nobody is more aware of what Lucic has gone through than her countryman, Goran Ivanisevic, who put her up during the 1998 Wimbledon, when she was hiding from her father, just weeks before the family fled for the U.S.
Ivanisevic never saw Marinko Lucic hit Mirjana, but he says he saw plenty of high-octane verbal abuse. "Whether she won or lost, he was not happy," Ivanisevic says. "He was never happy. I saw how bad he talked to her. I would break down if somebody talked to me like that. In my opinion, what he did, he ruined her life. To hit her? This is the 21st century, not 200 years ago."
Ivanisevic pauses. "I thought she was going to be a top 10 player for a long time," he says, shaking his head.
Lucic won a pair of Junior Grand Slams (the U.S. Open and the Australian Open) and became the No. 1 ranked junior in the world and at 15, was half of the youngest professional Grand Slam duo ever when she teamed with Martina Hingis to capture the Australian Open doubles crown in 1998. When she won the first pro tournament she entered at age 15 in Bol, Croatia (her victims included Amanda Coetzer, among the top players in the world at the time) and defended the title a year later, her stardom seemed assured. It would've been an idyllic life, were she not living with the daily dread of when the next beating would come.
The abuse that Marinko Lucic inflicted on his wife, Andelka, and children, family members say, was at once brutal and cunning. Mirjana says the first time he hit her was when she was 5%BD years old, after she lost a tournament to a girl who was about five years older. "My father smacked me in the nose. I was bleeding all over the house," she says. "I had no clue what was going on. I was in complete shock. After that it was pretty much the same old thing, all the time."
Mirjana says her father, who declined to answer questions about the alleged abuse, would typically beat her with a heavy Timberland shoe, around her head and back so that there would be visible marks. "Sometimes my head would hurt so much I couldn't brush my hair for a week," Mirjana says. He would throw trophies and racquets, but the most chilling moment, Lucic says, came when she was 14, after a junior clay-court tournament in Milan. Mirjana had fallen during a training session and suffered nasty scrapes on her knees and head. She was so banged up doctors suggested she skip the tournament, but she played and made it to the semis before losing.
She drove home with her father to the family's apartment in Zagreb, a few hours from the family's house in the seaside town of Makarska. When they arrived, she says her father - a former Olympic decathlete - hauled her into the bathroom, put her in the bathtub and beat her for 40 minutes with his shoe. When he was done, he gave her money.
"He told me to go out and buy an ice cream," Lucic says. She did.
Mirjana and her sister, Ana, say the police never came to the family's aid because their father is a powerful man in Croatia - both wealthy and well-connected. They say neighbors and friends never intervened, probably because they didn't know the extent of the abuse. By the early summer of 1998, Lucic had finally had enough. Days before the start of Wimbledon, a heated argument took place. Mirjana says her father threatened to kill her mother, and lunged at her, at which point Mirjana says she snapped, screaming, "Never again," cursing her father with every word she could think of. Mirjana and her mother bolted from the apartment where they were staying, and wound up running into Ivanisevic. She told him about the situation and he insisted they stay with him - three days of much-needed respite.
"Goran saved my life," Mirjana says.
Lucic made it to the third round at Wimbledon, and to the mixed doubles final, but the most momentous event of the summer happened on July 4, 1998, when Andelka Lucic and her five children snuck out of a hotel room in Zagreb at 2:30 in the morning. Into a waiting car they jumped, taking off for a hideout in the country, where they stayed for 19 days while they waited to get political asylum, a process facilitated by the office of former Sen. Alphonse D'Amato. Lucic was a no-show for an important Fed Cup match, and her whereabouts was front-page news.
On July 23, they went to Zagreb Airport, flanked by a half-dozen men with guns, and flew to New York.
"It was like something out of James Bond movie, except that it was our lives," Mirjana says.
She says her father took all but $23,000 of the money she had earned in her burgeoning pro career. She says he has repeatedly told her since that he would ruin her career and force her to come crawling back to him. Upon arriving in the States, Lucic went to see a physician. She says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
* * *
Lucic's ordeal with IMG, according to her attorney, Kevin Ambler of Tampa, has almost been as harrowing, albeit in a different way. The relationship began amid great promise late in 1998, and has long since dissolved into harsh accusations, and his-and-her lawsuits - IMG suing for repayment of $83,000 it advanced Lucic and initiating foreclosure on her condominium in the tony, gated confines of the IMG Sports Academy here; Lucic counter-suing on the grounds that the agency not only breached its fiduciary responsibility, but "has been the instrument of Mirjana's systematic financial destruction since 1998."
Moreover, Lucic's suit alleges that agent "Gavin Forbes had been working together (with Marinko Lucic) as part of a conspiracy to ruin Mirjana's tennis career because she had fled Croatia . . ." Ambler declines to be specific, but a legal source familiar with the suit says he intends to prove that Marinko Lucic agreed to steer promising junior players to IMG in return for its "help" with Mirjana.
Neither Forbes, nor Robert Hendrickson, the attorney who is representing IMG in the suit, would comment on the case. In a statement from a corporate spokesperson, IMG said, "The claims are false, and the company vehemently denies them. IMG moved to compel Mirjana Lucic to provide proof of her claims, and so far Lucic has not provided anything. The deadline passed months ago."
Speaking on his cell phone from Croatia, Marinko Lucic also denies the charge, saying, "Since 1998, I have no contact whatsoever with IMG. None." As for directing players to the agency, he says, "It is a science fiction story. Other than that I have no comment."
According to the legal source, Ambler also will contend that IMG sent Mirjana to a psychiatrist, who put her on the anti-depressant medication, Wellbutrin, against her wishes.
"I had to take Wellbutrin, and it wasn't by my own will," says Lucic, who said she felt lethargic and fuzzy on the medication.
"We believe that when we present our evidence to a jury it will become clear that they did everything they could - psychologically, financially, physically and emotionally - to undermine her tennis career," says Ambler, who also is a member of the Florida legislature. "If you're a Goliath like IMG and you want to bring down a player, there are a number of tools at your disposal to do it."
Ambler believes that the damage done to Lucic's career by IMG exceeds $10 million.
According to court papers filed in Manatee County, Fla., IMG executives first approached Lucic during the 1998 U.S. Open, at which point she was represented by rival agency Advantage International (now Octagon). Gavin Forbes, among the most influential agents in the sport, told Lucic, her mother and Ana, that IMG could help her earn five times the income of her existing deals - contracts totaling $350,000 with Prince and Fila, court papers allege. At a followup meeting with Forbes, fellow agent David Egdes and the late Mark McCormack, IMG's president and founder, in the IMG suite during the men's final, Lucic says in her suit, she was told IMG would furnish her with a lawyer who would assist her in getting out of her contract with Advantage.
In December 1998, three months before she turned 17, Lucic signed a four-year deal with IMG.
In her suit, Lucic says that Forbes told her that Nike proposed a three-year deal for between $300,000 and $330,000 per year after her run to the Wimbledon semis. She says she was eager to sign, but was advised not to by Forbes, who said he could get them up to $500,000 if he sweetened the deal by throwing a few junior players Nike's way. Nike later pulled the offer off the table, Lucic alleges in court papers, and Forbes "was telling everyone in the tennis world" that Mirjana was wildly unrealistic and was insisting on $1 million for an endorsement.
IMG denies that Forbes ever guaranteed to quintuple her income, according to court records, and also denies both the Nike offer and Forbes' advice to hold off accepting it. Nike didn't respond to calls requesting comment.
In its own suit, IMG seeks repayment of $83,000 in promissory notes Lucic signed for; Lucic claims she was told the money would never have to be repaid. She also claims she was constantly being pressured to sign papers, even though she says she struggled to read English, and that her IMG-supplied lawyer encouraged her to sign papers she hadn't properly examined. In its response, IMG denies those allegations.
On the endorsement front, IMG wound up getting Lucic a three-year deal with Head for a total of $145,000 (the equipment company later opted out via an escape clause tied to a minimum number of tournament appearances) and a $40,000 video game deal. Strapped for money, she says Ana helped arrange financing from an investment banker from Texas for $50,000 a year for five years to defray the costs of travel and coaching. The deal blew up, according to her court filings, because Gabriel Jaramillo, director of tennis at the academy, called the banker and told him "how poorly Mirjana had managed her financial affairs" and discouraged him from entering the deal. The banker backed out - more proof, according to Lucic, that IMG was working against her best interests.
Reached in his Houston office, the banker, Aaron Webster, a former college tennis player at Bucknell, says he was considering making a $50,000 annual investment in Lucic, which included a percentage of her earnings, but that a five-year term was never set. He reconsidered when Ana Lucic made it clear the funds were a loan, not an investment in future earnings.
Webster confirms that Jaramillo discouraged him from investing money in Lucic - not least because the first creditor on line for future earnings would be IMG.
In court records, IMG places the blame for Lucic's deteriorating finances squarely with Lucic, asserting that its agents were "unable to successfully negotiate endorsement contracts for Mirjana because of her poor performance, continued allegations of injuries and inability to win a tournament after her Wimbledon performance in 1999." Harold Solomon, a respected coach who had just finished working with Jennifer Capriati, was brought in by IMG to work briefly with Lucic in 2000. Lucic did not have the money to pay Solomon to travel with her.
"She always had a big game, but consistency was something she always struggled with," Solomon says. "Getting her to continuously do the work to play at a high level was difficult. I was never able to get her to be as fit as she needed to be. She needed to make that happen. It was one of the things that got in the way."
From her high ranking of No. 32 in 1999, Lucic's year-end rankings between 2000-2003 sunk to 202, 191, 292 and 335. She missed time with injuries late in 1999, and says that immigration problems and worries that she'd run into her father forced her to miss a number of European tournaments in 2000. It didn't help that she put on some 50 pounds in 2001, a byproduct of the stress she was under, she says. The weight is almost all gone (Lucic declines to discuss her weight, then or now). Her last victory was a straight-set win over Olga Blahotova of Czech Republic. It came in the second round of Wimbledon, nearly three years ago.
About the only thing Mirjana Lucic and IMG agree on is that the halcyon days of her career went south in a hurry.
* * *
It has been, in many ways, a grim and narrow existence for Lucic these last three years. She is persona non grata in her IMG-owned community, and doesn't even have a car. Without the estimated $100,000 it would cost to travel even part-time with a coach, Lucic stays close to home, trains and hopes she can find someone to sponsor her. In her spare time, she'll flop on the white leather couch in her condo and watch archaeological digs on the History Channel, though most of all she likes to watch tennis. Her mother and sisters tried to hide the remote in the beginning, but it didn't work. Big tournament or small, if tennis is on the screen, Lucic watches it, as often as not through a veil of tears. When she sees Maria Sharapova or Svetlana Kuznetsova or one of the other new girls winning tournaments, walking away with huge checks, the pangs of what she had cut through her like daggers.
Ambler, Lucic's attorney, says there is a potential sponsor - he declined to name the company - that is interested in signing Lucic. If a deal is struck, Lucic says she would hire a coach immediately and get back on the road, starting with a dozen or so smaller events before graduating to the WTA tour.
It's a long road back, but Mirjana Lucic is convinced that her tennis pinnacle need not remain inside that metal picture frame, a seven-year-old memory from Wimbledon. Her family knows her by the nickname "Miki" and she loves to paint, oil on canvas her preferred medium. The medium she wants to save her greatest work for is the tennis court.
"My time on the court will come again," Lucic says. "I promise you that. Everybody on the outside may think, 'Oh, she'll never do it, she's been away too long,' but nobody can put limitations on you but yourself."
"If somebody finds it in their heart to help her, she's going to do great things, believe me," Ana Lucic says.
Strolling down the beach here late on a recent afternoon, the sun warm on her face, Lucic looks out over the Gulf of Mexico, and seems hopeful. She and her two sisters decide to frolic in the water, but Mirjana doesn't go in much beyond her ankles. She loves to swim, but has only gone in once in eight years. "I'm afraid of sharks," she says with a faint smile.
Can she make it back to the tour, and rebuild her game and her life? "The talent's there," Harold Solomon says. "To me it's all about whether she's willing to make the commitment over an extended period of time. She's a sweet girl. I always liked her. It would be a great story if she could come back and do it." Goran Ivanisevic would love to see it happen, too. He's not going to handicap her chances, but deciding which way to root is far less complicated. "You need luck and you need help from upstairs for something like to happen," Ivanisevic says, "but if anyone deserves that luck and help, she does."
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