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Tomljanovic beats Serena: “Deep down I know I deserve to have that shot"

  • Matt Trollope

It loomed as one of the toughest assignments for players in professional tennis: drawing the curtain on Serena Williams’ iconic career, when 23,000 screaming fans, and millions more watching around the world, did not want them to.

Especially when Williams, just weeks out from her 41st birthday, was playing as well as she was in her final US Open.

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“I didn't take it personally because, I mean, I would be cheering for Serena, too, if I wasn't playing her,” said Ajla Tomljanovic, the Australian star who eventually completed the feat on Friday night in New York.

“But it was definitely not easy.”

This was an extraordinary victory for a player, who, as she freely admits, has suffered heartbreak throughout her career. A victim of perhaps wanting match victories too badly, of getting too down on herself, of letting negative thoughts overwhelm her.

More than once, she has referenced defeats after being in commanding positions at the Australian Open – firstly against Sloane Stephens in 2013, then against Simona Halep in 2021 – as contributing to some of that heartbreak.

In recent years, the 29-year-old has honed in on the mental side of her game – and much of that work came to the fore against Williams in a US Open match for the ages.

Ajla Tomljanovic (L) shakes hands with Serena Williams after their third-round match at the 2022 US Open. (Getty Images)

The proof of this was when Tomljanovic was in the tunnel, preparing to enter a sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium where the plaque – bearing Billie Jean King’s famous quote: “Pressure Is A Privilege” – was visible.

“I liked the quote. I felt pressure, from myself, where I'm at in my career. I feel like I belong here now. That's why I expect myself to perform well in these circumstances,” she reflected.

“When I saw that, yeah, (it) just felt right.”

READ MORE: Serena's evolution on pause with US Open win

Further proof came when she entered the stadium – the first time she had ever played on Ashe – and confronted an electric crowd.

“The biggest thing (I did) was just to block out all the noise. I tried to keep it simple. It's just another tennis match for me. I'm happy to be in the third round and have a great opportunity to play on Arthur Ashe. It's what I dreamed of when I was a kid. Just not make it bigger than it is because everyone else already made it huge,” Tomljanovic said.

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

And then there was the match itself, pitting her against perhaps the greatest player of all time, a contest that tested her physical, technical and psychological mettle. 

“(I) was very nervous and I don't like to say it, but a little bit fearful of things going really badly out there because I'm playing Serena,” she admitted. 

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“I have faith in myself, but at the same time I have a little bit of doubt. I know that that's just coming from that bad side of Ajla that always has some doubt, like every normal person. 

“It was just about channeling the positive sides in me because I do have a lot of faith in myself and belief. I know I've put in the work over the last few months. 

“Deep down I know I deserve to have that shot like I had tonight.”

In a glorious three-hour-plus battle full of ferocious hitting and dramatic momentum swings, Tomljanovic recovered from large deficits in the first and second sets, and saw five match points saved by a gallant Williams, before prevailing 7-5 6-7(4) 6-1.

READ MORE: Tomljanovic rises to end Serena's US Open campaign

“From the first ball I was happy I felt comfortable. From then on, it was kind of instinct,” said Tomljanovic, who was facing Williams for the first time.

“It's Serena's moment, but (my dad) wanted to make me aware that for me, it should be my moment, what it's going to mean to me, just to focus on that. I should completely try to enjoy myself as much as I can because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Almost 24,000 fans packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch Serena Williams take on Ajla Tomljanovic at the US Open, in what is expected to be the American legend's last ever match. (Getty Images)

“(It’s) probably the most conflictive I've ever felt after a win. During the match I was so eager to win… but then when it ended, it almost didn't feel right. 

“When she started talking about her family (in her final on-court interview), I got emotional because I can relate to having a strong bond with your family. 

“The whole moment after was just tough to handle a little bit.”

The victory was a continuation of Tomljanovic’s late-career surge, one that saw her reach back-to-back Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2021 and 2022.

She is through to the fourth round at the US Open for the first time in her career, and has now reached the second week at three of the four majors.

Next up for Tomljanovic is the surging Liudmila Samsonova, a player on a 13-match winning streak after winning two WTA titles in the run-up to this fortnight.

Tennis players often say they are at their mental peak when they are living in the present. 

And in further proof of Tomljanovic’s psychological growth, that is exactly where she was following her career-defining victory over Williams.

“It's already kind of in the past,” she revealed. 

“I mean, I'm happy I won tonight. I actually think a little too quickly about the next one.”