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After many heartbreaking losses, Ajla Tomljanovic says this US Open is a “what-goes-around-comes-around moment”
How one of tennis’ most thoughtful players is handling her sudden stardom.
Published Sep 05, 2022
WATCH: Ajla Tomljanovic at the Evert Tennis Academy
NEW YORK—“Is that her?” one fan asked another as they watched a woman in a blue baseball cap hitting forehands and backhands, with metronomic persistence, on a US Open practice court this weekend.
When the woman in question finally missed a shot and turned around, the fans cried in unison, “It is her.”
“Her” was Ajla Tomljanovic, the new and—for those of us who have been watching her over the last 10 years—surprising star of the Open. On Friday, the 29-year-old, 46th-ranked Tomljanovic become world famous as the woman who beat Serena Williams in her final match. Then, a few minutes later, she became world famous as the woman who charmed Serena’s 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium with her humble and thoughtful post-match interview. Now she had attracted nearly as many people to watch her hit ball after ball as the player one court over: Rafael Nadal.
Yet nothing distracted Tomljanovic from the task at hand: Avoiding what could easily have been a massive letdown against Liudmila Samsonova, a woman who had won 13 straight matches and 18 straight sets. Mission accomplished—barely. Tomljanovic conceded that she didn’t play as well as she had against Serena; she may never play that well again. And she had to come back from 1-4 down and save eight set points to win the first set.
But this is the new Ajla, the one who takes big forehand rips on big points, and doesn’t give in. She saved those eight set points, won a 20-minute game at 4-5 in the first set, and beat one of the WTA’s most in-form players.
Everything seems new and improved about Tomljanovic’s game, from her killer crosscourt forehand, to her unwavering consistency, to the way she talks to herself, out loud, before big points. She’s turned into her own best coach.
“It just feels really good to back up a win that I think got a lot of attention,” she said. “Just felt like it’s been a really big 48 hours. I didn’t really feel like myself today the whole day.”
Once upon a time, Tomljanovic would have wilted under the bright lights of Ashe and an onslaught from Serena. Winning close matches wasn’t her forte, but practice eventually makes perfect. In Toronto and Cincinnati, she won six three-setters, and then another, 7-5 in the third, in the first round of the Open. There’s no secret formula to winning those types of matches, but if you do it enough, it becomes a habit.
“It’s really nice,” Tomljanovic says. “I feel like [it’s a] what-goes-around-comes-around moment for me. Especially the long matches that I’ve lost in the past, now I’m winning them. I think for that reason I’m more calm in those moments.”
Also, at some point over the course of a career, you may realize that nothing bad actually happens when you lose.
“I think I’m really good at this moment at letting things go really quickly,” Tomljanovic says. “Also, I’m not scared to fail because I failed a lot in my career. You know what, the worst thing that happens is you lose, you wake up the next morning and you’re still alive, life goes on.”
Tomljanovic says she didn’t “feel like herself” after the Serena win, and she mostly stayed away from social media. Worried that she had played the villain, she was pleasantly surprised to find out that she made millions of new fans instead.
“I was a little scared that I came off in a different way, then I read a lot of stuff where I was in a positive light, I was described as, which felt really nice.
“All I wanted to do in that match was just respect Serena’s legacy, but at the same time I wanted to win. For that to come off that way, I was happy about that.”
Tomljanovic wasn’t afraid to admit that she cared about how she was perceived. She has always been a thoughtful person who doesn’t seem to have a mean streak. She could also seem too nice to be a tennis player, lacking that hard kernel of inner confidence and competitive drive. Now we’re finding out that it has been there all along. It’s not just that she’s winning close matches, she’s also hitting the ball more decisively and ruthlessly, especially with her forehand.
Tomljanovic made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2021 and 2022, but still came here ranked 46th. Maybe, finally, she can begin to sustain that high level over the course of a season. If you have the confidence to end Serena’s career, you should have the confidence to do just about anything.
For now, according to Tomljanovic, it’s time to move on and keep hitting those practice balls.
“I just feel like I’m one of the eight people that will be in the quarters,” she says. “Nothing more, nothing less. I think the moment has passed.”
One big moment has passed. Let’s see if she can create a few more before she goes.