Former tennis teenage star Mirjana Lucic of Croatia has accepted a main draw wildcard invitation to compete at next month's ASB Class tournament in Auckland.
Lucic, 26, advised tournament director Brenda Perry late on Boxing Day she was able to compete , having arranged last minute flights and appropriate visas from her Florida home.
Recently absent from big-time tennis for personal reasons, Lucic was a prominent player in the late 1990s.
In 1997, as a 15-year-old unranked wildcard qualifier, she won the first WTA Tour event she played, at Bol in Croatia.
She then went on to reach the final at her second career event in Strasbourg.
While playing in her first WTA Tour doubles draw, she became the youngest player in history to win a title at the Australian Open, capturing the doubles title at age 15 years 10 months and 21 days in tandem with another teen phenomenon, Martina Hingis.
In 1999, as the 134th-ranked player in the world, she beat world No 4 Monica Seles and eighth seed Nathalie Tauziat to make the semifinals of Wimbledon before falling to Steffi Graf in three sets.
Lucic was then the lowest-ranked player to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since the start of the women's tennis rankings in 1975.
Since her meteoric rise as a teenager Lucic hit some troubled times in her personal life but is now on the comeback trail with her traditional big serve, a determined attitude and a new opportunity at her chosen career.
"Considering the challenges Mirjana has faced in her life over the last few years, I think most people in her situation may well have abandoned their dreams by now and just found it all too hard," Perry said.
"But the fact that she still has the desire to compete and still has the belief in herself, speaks volumes about her character, her courage and her fierce competitive spirit."
Last year Lucic played a number of tournaments where she mainly fought out qualifying matches, with mixed results.
She is hopeful the ASB Classic will be a new beginning.
"I am extremely excited about coming to Auckland and playing in the ASB Classic for the first time," she said in a statement.
"I have worked very hard in the off-season and feel very positive about my game and the opportunity to play with the best tennis players in the world in Auckland.
"I have spent 2008 playing lots of qualifying of challengers and working on getting my game to a better level. I know that 2009 will be a great year for me, and there is no better way to start the season then getting this amazing opportunity to play in the main draw of such a great tournament."
* The Classic will be played at the ASB Tennis Centre from January 5-10.
- Sunday Star Times