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

When Ajla Tomljanovic was a little girl, she asked her father for a precious photo of him with a big trophy on his head. Ratko Tomjanovic was a great professional handball player who won two European Championships for the Croatian capital Zagreb and was the captain of the Croatian national team; before that he was a Yugoslavian member of the team.

His daughter wondered where that shiny trophy was because she had never seen it in their house. Ratko Tomljanovic explained that it was a team award and he was not able to keep it. Unmoved, Ajla told him she couldn’t play handball.

“I want the trophy to be my own,” she said.

So Ajla Tomljanovic chose tennis, and she’s still fighting for that big trophy, that professional title. She has shown a talent for this, although her nerves sometimes betray her – what she calls “bad Ajla”.

But on Friday night, No. 46 Tomljanovic proved to herself and the world that she has the grit and shot to win her own trophy. If she wins four more games the following week, it will be one of the most coveted games in sports.

That night, Tomljanovic defeated six-time U.S. Open champion Serena Williams 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-1 in front of a raucous partisan crowd at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium to advance fourth place. US Open first round.

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

It wasn’t necessarily what she thought before she got on the field.

Tomljanovic is nervous, and for good reason. Williams is her idol, and Tomlyanovic has never played her before. She has never played in Ash. In fact, she never even practiced on that court. She asked tournament organisers if they could find time for her to play at least once on the world’s largest tennis court, but found nothing.

Then there was the issue of her playing the villain, in front of nearly 24,000 fans, nearly all of whom were screaming for Williams to win, and millions watching on TV. This will make anyone a little edgy.

Tomlyanovic confided her anxiety to her father, who was delighted that his daughter admitted the nervousness. Better than hiding them, he thought. Ratko Tomljanovic also knows how to play in harsh environments, especially in Europe where handball is very popular and the stakes are high. He tried to calm Ajla, evoking the almost comical character of the die-hard handball veteran – who had woven the yarn to her and his other daughter, Hana, on several occasions.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of crowds,” he told Ajla. “I played in some horrible places, 5,000 people were booing and spitting, at one point the crowd fell to the floor and there was a big fight. Don’t tell me it’s hard because someone in row 35 is yelling at you yell.”

Not exactly Mickey yelling at Loki. It was a speech designed to lighten the mood, and it worked. Ajera smiled. “She didn’t care what I did,” Ratko said with a smile.

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

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

In the film, he tells her that the pitcher focuses explicitly on the catcher’s glove and ignores everything else in the stadium. Ajla got it, and she followed the advice with her own unique determination.

She blocked out all the noise, the roars of Williams, the indecent cheers of Tomljanovic when he misses a serve, all the celebrities in the stands, the video homage to Williams and her childhood The adoration of the 23-time Grand Slam champion stands across the net as well as she has been in years. But Tomljanovic is better.

“From the first moment I stepped on the field, I didn’t really look around,” she said. “I was totally immersed in my own little bubble.”

From the outside, when she rallied with Williams and exchanged sensational shots, it looked like the best player Tomljanovic had ever played, especially in the circumstances. But she mentioned her fourth-round win over Aliz Cornett at Wimbledon in July, which took her to the quarter-finals for the second year in a row. These results reflect her current best performance in a major event.

Tomljanovic, who plays for Australia, could have won the set she lost on Friday. Although she trailed 0-4 and 2-5, she refused to give up the set and worked her way back to the tiebreaker, which Williams won. But it took a toll on Williams, 40, who had played doubles the night before, and it showed in the third set when fatigue took over. The key to it all is a monster game that lasts over 15 minutes.

“I know how much I hate players who don’t give up anything so easily that you have to work for every point,” said 29-year-old Tomljanovic. “I hate playing players like that.”

She was that hated player that day, with all the toughness and shrewdness. She said she felt bad for Williams and that she always identified with her because Williams was originally coached by her father and played with her sister Venus. Tomjanovic was also coached by her father and grew up playing with Hana, who played at the University of Virginia.

After Ajla’s win, Ratko Tomljanovic sat quietly in the players’ garden, just 10 feet from where Williams and a large group of family and friends gathered before leaving the field. He looked back at the mentality his daughter showed on Friday and traced it back to when she decided she wanted that trophy, and when they were schoolgirls, he took Ajla and Hana to handball camp. Ajla never passes the ball. She would keep shooting until Ratko told her she had to pass.

“She said, ‘No, no, Dad, when I get the ball, I’m going to score,'” he said.

He saw a little more in Ash. He also saw a little Kevin Costner.

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