Amid a desperate moment for Australian tennis three years ago, officials across the nation realized they had been blessed with another talent that had considerable grit. Ajla Tomljanović, who continued her rousing run at the US Open on Sunday night in New York, emerged 2019 as a silver lining from a devastating Fed Cup final loss to France in Perth.
The 29-year-old, who saved eight set points in Sunday’s 7-6, 6-1 win over Ludmila Samsanova in the first set, was badly beaten on the opening day of the final. Captain Alicia Molik had options for the reverse singles in reserve. But she sensed a rare hardness in a woman who had overcome a horrific shoulder injury only to return to tennis.
After Ash Barty suffered a shock loss in game three, Tomljanović found her best form to give Australia another chance when she was too strong for Pauline Parmentier. The doubles and a chance to end a Fed Cup drought since 1974 went begging. But Tomljanović earned great respect for her resilience and also for the way she comforted her distraught teammates after the loss.
Respect and admiration for Tomljanović have only grown in the two years since. Tomljanović, who earned the title of Australia’s new flag-bearer in women’s tennis following Barty’s surprise retirement in March, is relishing the responsibility.
Her exploits at Wimbledon, where she lost to eventual champion Elena Rybakini in the quarter-finals, and now at the US Open show she is a force to be reckoned with. The 29-year-old, who will jump to a career-high rank in the lower 30s by the end of the tournament at the latest, could have been excused for disappointment on Sunday night.
Just 48 hours earlier, she had shown remarkable fortitude as she faced off against Serena Williams and 24,000 screaming fans in the performance of her life. Until today, that is. It ended the career of a legend. Never again will she play in front of such an impressive crowd, even if she reaches a grand final. A weaker player would have been exhausted from the effort.
The crowd that attended Louis Armstrong Stadium on Sunday was much smaller in comparison. The atmosphere was correspondingly much flatter. It proved difficult to get the adrenaline flowing again. Tomljanović struggled for rhythm in the game’s infancy against an in-form rival who had won her previous 18 tennis sets and played with immense confidence and power.
But trailing 5-2 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 could change.
“It was big. I came out pretty floored and I figured the last 48 hours had been a lot,” she said. “But something inside me said, ‘I don’t want to stop here. I have to fight a little bit more, even if I do go down
It was an immense battle and her willpower earned her the full support of the small group of fans who stayed behind after a long day on the court and chanted her name at the end of the set. Her service game at 4-5 lasted 18 minutes and she saved seven set points in the process.
Two of those efforts were particularly brilliant. On the third, she executed a perfectly weighted backhand drop shot and a few points later she ripped a forehand winner down the line. In the tiebreak, she overcame another set point – and some nerves of her own – to move forward. And it broke Samsonova, who had won two titles at the US Open.
Calm is the key, said Tomljanović. “I think it’s just about staying in the moment. She played well,” she said. “I don’t really have time to linger because the game goes fast. I just need to stay as calm as possible, even if I’m dying inside.”
Tomljanović, who has close family members living in south-east Queensland and adopted Australia in 2014, deleted her social media before playing Williams. She knew she had to focus solely on blocking out the crowd. But she threw a look on Saturday, with the reward for her actions being praised, which provided a boost of energy.
“I’ll say on Friday night it was something I’ve never experienced in my life, even though most of you left for Serena I still felt the love,” she said. The task ahead doesn’t get any easier as she faces either Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur or another talented Russian in Veronika Kudermetova in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. But these players will be aware of one thing: Tomljanović is tough and getting tougher.