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How Ajla Tomljanovic Faced Down Serena Williams and 24,000 Others


When Ajla Tomljanovic was a bit girl, she asked her father a couple of prized photograph of him holding an enormous trophy on his head. Ratko Tomljanovic was an amazing skilled handball player, winning two European Championships for Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and was the captain of the Croatian national team; before that, he was a member of the Yugoslavian team.

His daughter desired to know where that shiny trophy was, because she had never seen it of their home. Ratko Tomljanovic explained that it had been a team award, and that he didn’t get to maintain it. Unimpressed, Ajla told him that she wouldn’t play handball.

“I would like the trophy only for myself,” she said.

So Ajla Tomljanovic selected tennis, and she or he remains to be striving for that big trophy, for an expert championship. She has shown the talent for it, though her nerves have betrayed her at times — what she calls “the bad Ajla.”

But on Friday night, Tomljanovic, who’s ranked forty sixth, demonstrated to herself and the world that she had the mettle and the shotmaking ability to win a trophy of her own. If she wins 4 more matches in the approaching week, it’s going to be one of the vital coveted in sports.

That night, Tomljanovic beat the six-time U.S. Open champion Serena Williams, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, in front of a raucous, partisan crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Latest York to advance to the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the primary time.

“I feel like I belong here now,” she said.

That was not necessarily what she was considering within the moments before she took the court.

Tomljanovic was nervous, and for good reason. Williams was her idol, and Tomljanovic had never played her before. She had never played in Ashe. Actually, she had never even practiced on that court. She had asked tournament organizers in the event that they could discover a time for her to hit some balls in the biggest tennis stadium on the planet at the least once, but nothing was available.

Then there was the matter of her playing the role of villain, of facing down nearly 24,000 fans, virtually all of them screaming for Williams to win, and tens of millions more watching on television. It will make anyone a tad edgy.

Tomljanovic confided the anxiety to her father, who was comfortable that his daughter admitted to the nerves. Higher than hiding them, he thought. Ratko Tomljanovic also knew about playing in hostile environments, especially in Europe, where handball is very popular and the stakes are high. He tried to calm Ajla by evoking the virtually comical role of the hard-bitten veteran of scrappy handball matches — the type of yarn he had spun to her and his other daughter, Hana, persistently before.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the gang,” he told Ajla. “I played in some terrible places with 5,000 people booing and spitting, and one time the gang got here on the ground and there was an enormous fight. Don’t tell me it’s hard because some guy within the thirty fifth row is yelling at you.”

It was not exactly Mickey yelling at Rocky. It was a speech designed to lighten the mood, and it worked. Ajla laughed. “She doesn’t care about what I did, in any respect,” Ratko said, chuckling.

But then he brought out one other motivational tool. He mentioned one in all his favorite movies, “For the Love of the Game,” during which a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, played by Kevin Costner, reflects on his life and profession within the midst of an ideal game.

“But she didn’t know the movie, so I had to clarify it to her,” he said. “I told her, ‘You have got to be Kevin Costner today.’”

Within the film, he told her, the pitcher focuses explicitly on the catcher’s glove and ignores every part else within the stadium. Ajla understood, and she or he followed the recommendation along with her own unique resolve.

She blocked out all of the noise, the roars for Williams, the indecorous cheers when Tomljanovic missed a serve, all of the celebrities within the stands, the video tributes to Williams and her own childhood adulation for Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion standing across the web and playing in addition to she had in years. But Tomljanovic was higher.

“From the primary moment I walked on court, I didn’t really go searching much,” she said. “I used to be completely in my very own little bubble.”

From the surface, as she engaged in furious rallies and traded sensational shots with Williams, it looked like the perfect Tomljanovic had ever played, especially given the circumstances. But she cited her fourth-round win over Alizé Cornet at Wimbledon in July, which vaulted her into the quarterfinals there for the second 12 months in a row. Those results reflect her best performances in a significant tournament, for now.

On Friday, Tomljanovic, who plays for Australia, could have won the match within the set she lost. Regardless that she was trailing 0-4 and 2-5, she refused to offer the set away, fighting all the best way back to a tiebreaker, which Williams won. However it took its toll on Williams, 40, who had played doubles the night before, and it showed within the third set when fatigue took over. The important thing to all of it was a monster game that lasted over quarter-hour.

“I know the way much I hate playing players that don’t hand over anything so freely that you’ve gotten to work for each point,” Tomljanovic, 29, said. “I hate playing players like that.”

That day, she was the hated player with all of the mental toughness and savvy. She said that she felt bad for Williams, and that she at all times identified along with her because Williams was initially coached by her father and played alongside her sister Venus. Tomljanovic was also coached by her father and grew up fidgeting with Hana, who played on the University of Virginia.

After Ajla won, Ratko Tomljanovic sat quietly within the player garden, barely 10 feet from where Williams and a big group of family and friends gathered before leaving the grounds. He reflected on the mentality his daughter exhibited on Friday and traced it back to when she decided she wanted that trophy for herself, and when he took Ajla and Hana to a handball camp after they were schoolgirls. Ajla would never pass the ball. She would keep shooting until Ratko told her she needed to pass.

“She said, ‘No, no, Daddy, when I actually have the ball, I just go and rating,’” he said.

He saw a bit of that again in Ashe. He also saw a bit of Kevin Costner.

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