Amid a despairing moment for Australian tennis three years ago, there was a realisation among the nation’s officials that they had been blessed with another talent possessing significant grit. Ajla Tomljanović, who continued her stirring US Open run on Sunday night in New York, emerged as a silver lining from a devastating Fed Cup final loss to France in Perth in 2019.
The 29-year-old, who saved eight set points in the first set when defeating Ludmila Samsanova 7-6, 6-1 on Sunday, was badly beaten on the opening day of the final. Captain Alicia Molik had options in reserve for the reverse singles. But she sensed a rare steeliness in a woman who had overcome a terrible shoulder injury just to return to tennis.
After Ash Barty suffered a shock loss in the third rubber, Tomljanović found her best form to give Australia another chance when too strong for Pauline Parmentier. The doubles and the chance to end a Fed Cup drought dating back to 1974 went begging. But Tomljanović earned great respect for her resilience and also the manner with which she consoled her distraught teammates in the aftermath of the loss.
The respect and admiration for Tomljanović has only furthered in the two years since. Handed the mantle of being Australia’s new standard bearer in women’s tennis by virtue of Barty’s surprise retirement in March, Tomljanović is revelling in the responsibility.
Her deeds at Wimbledon, where she lost to eventual champion Elena Rybakini in a quarter-final, and now at the US Open, demonstrate she is a force to be reckoned with. The 29-year-old, who will jump to a career-high ranking in the low 30s at the very least at the completion of the tournament, could have been excused for a letdown on Sunday night.
Just 48 hours earlier she had shown remarkable fortitude when pitted against Serena Williams and 24,000 screaming fans to produce the performance of her lifetime. To date, that is. It ended the career of a legend. Never will she play in front of such a formidable crowd again, even if she makes a major final. A lesser player would have been drained by the effort.
The crowd attending Louis Armstrong Stadium on Sunday was far smaller in comparison. The atmosphere, as a result, was far flatter. It proved hard to get the adrenaline flowing again. Tomljanović struggled for rhythm in the infancy of the match against an in-form rival who had won her previous 18 sets of tennis and was playing with immense confidence and power.
But trailing 2-5 in the first set, the resistance she showed against Williams came to the fore. Her inner-voice told her that if she could fight, things might turn.
“It was huge. I came out feeling pretty flat and I was thinking to myself, the last 48 hours has been a lot,” she said. “But something within me was saying, ‘this is not where I want to stop. I need to give, even if I go down, a little more fight’.”
It was an immense struggle and her willpower earned her the full support of the small set of fans left after a long day on the court who were chanting her name by the end of the set. Her service game at 4-5 lasted 18 minutes and she saved seven set points in it.
Two of those efforts were especially brilliant. On the third, she executed a perfectly weighted backhand drop shot and a couple of points later ripped a forehand winner up the line. In the tiebreaker she overcame another set point – and some nerves of her own – to edge ahead. And it broke Samsonova, who had won two titles coming into the US Open.
Calmness was the key, Tomljanović said. “I think it is just about staying in the moment. She played well,” she said. “I don’t really have time to dwell, because the game is going through quickly. I just need to stay as calm as possible, even though inside I am dying.”
Tomljanović, who has close family members living in south-east Queensland and adopted Australia in 2014, deleted her social media prior to playing against Williams. She knew she needed to be singularly focused on shutting out the crowd. But she snuck a glance on Saturday, with the praise for her deeds a reward that provided an energy boost.
“I am going to say on Friday night, it was something I have never experienced in my life,” she said. “Even though most of you were going for Serena, I still felt the love.”
And setbacks, she said, had built her resilience and belief reward would some day come.
“I think a lot of heartbreaks that have happened over a long time, I feel like what goes around comes around moment for me,” she said. “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. It just feels nice, like the work is paying off.”
The task ahead does not get any easier, for she plays either Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur or another talented Russian in Veronika Kudermetova in a quarter-final on Tuesday. But those players will be aware of one thing: Tomljanović is tough, and only getting tougher.