Ajla Tomljanovic faces Lucie Safarova in the opening round Ajla Tomljanovic faces Lucie Safarova in the opening round

Aussie Ajla’s next test

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Having scored a perfect 20 in her recent Australian citizenship test, Ajla Tomljanovic is preparing for a more searching examination next week at Melbourne Park. Scheduled to play former French Open finalist Lucie Safarova in the opening round of Australian Open 2018, the former Croatian is also awaiting delivery of her first Australian passport.

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Tomljanovic missed last year’s Open while in the latter stages of her rehabilitation from the 2016 shoulder surgery that would sideline her for 13 months. But she has swiftly rebuilt to the cusp of the top 100, a ranking that had dropped off the computer when she resumed last February in Acapulco.

Tomljanovic has competed with the letters (AUS) beside her name at the Grand Slams since 2015, but the update on the nationality front is that the powerful baseliner is now officially wearing green and gold in every tournament from now on.

(Author’s note: the ability to suit-up for her adopted nation at the Fed Cup and Olympics will be based on a planned appeal against ITF rules that prevent players from representing more than one country. Tomljanovic contested eight ties for Croatia in 2010-11. “I think my case is a little bit different because I played when I was a minor, so I was 15, 16, and also I applied for my Australian passport before that rule came out,'' she says. "So I think I could have a decent case.’’)

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The process that started with a residency application at the start of 2014, and continued with a pre-Christmas test she entered nervously, but well-prepared. “It was 20 questions and I think you had to get 15 right,’’ she says. And? “I got a 20! I had so many friends knowing I was taking it, so I really studied the stuff and then it was so ridiculous, the questions.

“Like ‘what’s the national anthem called’? Maybe some Australians if they didn’t read over (the material) they wouldn’t know who’s in charge in the parliament or, I don’t know, just tricky ones. But, like, the colours of the flag? Come on, that’s just common sense.’’

The next stage was a citizenship ceremony during last week’s Brisbane International, where the nominal Queenslander lost a tight three-setter in the second round to fifth seed Jo Konta. “It was actually so cool. I didn’t really know what it was gonna be like and I had to pledge and everything. It was a cool experience.’’

With the rest of the paperwork in place, delivery of the passport will be the puzzle’s final piece. As to what that all means: “It just feels different because I don’t have to answer questions any more! Like ‘where is it at now? Are you Croatian again?’ I’m like ‘no, now you can just read it’.

“It’s been a while now since in the Slams it was ‘Australia’, so for me I forget that it’s ‘Croatia’ in WTA. So for me it was that first time that it was ‘Australia’ where it was like ‘oh, a different feeling’, but now I’m so used to it.’’
 

Even though I’m here with a wildcard, I feel like I’m not far off being here main draw, so I feel really good where my game’s at and where I’m at physically.
Ajla Tomljanovic

She’s also happily reacquainting herself with top-level tennis. The powerful former world No.47 used her protected ranking at the post-Oz majors last year, but needed to drop down to ITF level at times to rebuild and work her way back up.

Hard, but also not, says Tomljanovic, who recalls telling her mother, Emina, about a month after the shoulder operation when “it kind of sinks in and your life that you want to live is kind of gone a little bit”, that she would give anything just to play qualifying rounds of a humble $10,000 tournament. But that changed soon enough, when she was toiling away at a $60,000 event.

Having acknowledged that “OK, this is where I’m at’’, Tomljanovic realised something else. “My first thought was ‘oh, I wish I was at like, I don’t know, Indian Wells or something’! But then I remembered the times when I couldn’t move out of bed because I had a bad shoulder, so it’s all about perspective and just reminding myself where I was.’’

No reminders needed about where she is: a Grand Slam she followed on TV from afar last year. Tomljanovic's ranking is still not quite good enough for direct main draw entry, but far advanced on where it was at the US Open, where Tomljanovic did not feel she quite belonged.

“I wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be, and my ranking wasn’t there to get me in, and I kind of had that mentality that OK, I’m still working my way back,” she said. 

“Even though I’m here with a wildcard, I feel like I’m not far off being here main draw, so I feel really good where my game’s at and where I’m at physically. But it was a process. It took time, and I couldn’t rush it. But I’m happy that I stuck to it, and now I’m here.’’