How Ajla Tomljanovic faced Serena Williams and 24,000 others

When Ajla Tomljanovic was little, she asked her father about a rare photo of him holding a large trophy on his head. Ratko Tomljanovic is a great professional handball player who won his two European Championships in the Croatian capital Zagreb and was the captain of the Croatian national team. Prior to that, he was a member of the Yugoslavian team.

His daughter wanted to know where the shiny trophy was because she had never seen it at home. Ratko Tomljanovic explained that this was a team award and he couldn’t keep it. Unimpressed, Ajra tells him she doesn’t play handball.

“I want a trophy just for myself,” she said.

So Adjla Tomljanovic chose tennis, and she still strives for that big trophy, the professional championship. She has shown her talent, but she has also been nervously let down. She calls it “Bad Ajra”.

But on Friday night, the 46th-ranked Tomljanovic proved to himself and the world that he has the grit and shotmaking ability to win his own trophy. If she wins four more games in her next week, she’ll be one of the most coveted matches in the sport.

That night, Tomljanovic defeated six-time US Open champion Serena Williams 7-5 6-7(4) 6-1 in front of a rowdy partisan crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City. I beat it and advanced to 4th place. Her first US Open round.

“I feel like I’m here now,” she said.

That wasn’t always what she had in mind in the moments before she went to court.

Tomljanovic was nervous, and for good reason. Williams was her idol and Tomlyanovic had never played her before. She had never played for Ash. In fact, she never even practiced on that court. She asked the tournament organizers if she could find time to hit the ball at least once in her stadium, the world’s largest tennis court, but nothing was available to her.

Then there was the matter of her playing the role of the villain and standing up to nearly 24,000 fans, virtually all of whom were shouting Williams’ victory, plus millions watching on TV. It makes anyone a little edgy.

Tomljanovic confided his worries to his father, who was happy to admit that his daughter was nervous. Better than hiding them, he thought. Ratko Tomljanovic also knew about playing in a hostile environment, especially in Europe where handball is very popular and the stakes are high. He tried to appease Ajura, conjuring up the almost comical role of a struggling veteran in a rough handball match. This is like the thread he spun to her and to his other daughter, Hana, over and over.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared of the crowd,” he told Ajra. “I played in a terrible place with 5,000 people booing and spitting, and one time the crowd came to the floor and we had a big fight.”35 Don’t tell me it’s difficult because the man in the row is yelling at me.”

Mickey wasn’t yelling at Rocky. It was a speech designed to lighten the mood, and it worked. “She doesn’t care what I do,” Ratko said with a laugh.

But then he launched another motivational tool. He mentioned one of his favorite movies, “For the Love of the Game.” In the film, Detroit his Tigers pitcher, played by Kevin Costner, reflects on his life and career in the midst of a perfect game.

“But she didn’t know the movie, so I had to explain it to her.” I said to her, ‘You must be Kevin Costner today. ”

In the film, he tells her that the pitcher is clearly focused on the catcher’s glove and ignores everything else in the stadium.

She has all the noise, the roar for Williams, the obnoxious cheers when Tomljanovic misses serve, all the celebrities in the stands, videos of tributes to Williams, and the 23-time Grand Slam champion standing opposite. cut off her own childhood admiration for Williams. Net and play just like she’s had for years. But Tomljanovic was better.

“From the first moment I walked on the court, I didn’t look around much,” she said. “I was completely in my own little bubble.”

From the outside, it looked like the best play Tomljanovic had ever played, especially given the circumstances, as she entered a ferocious rally and traded sensational shots with Williams. But she cited a fourth-round win over Alizee Cornette at Wimbledon in July, reaching the quarterfinals for the second year in a row. It reflects performance.

On Friday, Australia international Tomljanovic may have won the match in a losing set. She was tied 0-4 and she was 2-5, but she fought all the way to the tiebreak, which Williams won, refusing to surrender her set. But it took a toll on the 40-year-old Williams, who had played doubles the night before, and fatigue showed up in the third set.

29-year-old Tomljanovic said, “I know how much I hate playing against players who don’t give up anything so freely that they have to work hard to get every single point.” I hate fighting.”

Back in the day, she was a hated player with all her mental toughness and knowledge..Tomljanovic was also tutored by her father and grew up playing alongside Hana, who played at the University of Virginia.

After Ajra won, Latko Tomljanovic sat quietly in the player’s yard. He was just 10 feet from where Williams and a large group of his family and friends gathered before leaving the field. He reflected on the mindset her daughter exhibited on Friday, dating back to when she decided she wanted that trophy for herself and when he took Adjula and Hana to handball camp when they were sorority girls. Ajla never passed the ball. She kept shooting until Ratko told her she had to pass.

“She said, ‘No, no, daddy, when I have the ball, I just go and score,'” he said.

He also saw a little bit of it in Ash. He also saw a bit of Kevin Costner.

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