Next in the quest to become the likely answer to a tennis quiz question for decades to come is Ajla Tomljanovic.
But as Tomljanovic knows – perhaps too well aware – securing the prize will be a good task.
Williams is back to singing and a chorus of nearly 24,000 people will continue to give her a thunderous backup in tonight’s US Open third round game in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“No matter the result, it is something I will never forget,” said Tomljanovic late Wednesday night, standing on an almost empty terrace outside the stadium. “And I actually thought about it even before the draw came out. I thought about playing her, and it made me a little sad that I was playing in her time and never really got to play her. And I had this moment of manifestation in my bed that I was going to have this moment.
“I had no idea how it was going to happen, but I saw that I was going to play her, so it’s kind of surreal.”
Tomljanovic is no newcomer, like some of Williams’ early opponents during this comeback, which is presumably his last comeback.
Emma Raducanu, 19, defeated Williams in the first round of the Western and Southern Open. Tomljanovic is 29, was born in Croatia into a sports family – her father, Ratko, was a high-level handball player – and moved to Florida as a teenager to train. She still resides there, although she started representing Australia in 2018 after spending a lot of time in the country with her ex-boyfriend Nick Kyrgios.
Tomljanovic’s biography befits a global sport such as professional tennis and his profession has brought her a lot of joy, but also tears and frustration. She had a severe shoulder injury and missed a long period of action due to mononucleosis. Despite all of her obvious ability to hit the ball, she has never been ranked higher than number 38 in singles, and that came earlier this year. She is now ranked 46 and unseeded at the US Open.
“In my opinion she is the best player on tour who has never been in the top 20,” said Max Eisenbud, her longtime agent, who works with Raducanu and has made a name for herself representing Maria Sharapova and Li Na. “Ajla’s good tennis is really beautiful and beautiful to watch. I am happy that she has this platform to show her tennis. I hope you can handle the moment. It’s not easy.”
The challenge is not just facing Williams’ baseline shots and hard-to-read, powerful serve. It’s not just about facing the crowd screaming for Williams winners and applauding the mistakes of his opponents. The challenge is in the learning curve: adjusting to the reality of seeing Williams on the other side of the net after watching her for so long from a distance or on a screen.
It takes too long to adapt and the opportunity is gone, but Tomljanovic, a citizen of the world, said she would not have felt her journey into tennis was complete without the chance to play the greatest female player of their time.
“I think I have to play her,” he said. “I’ll be honest: I didn’t want to play it here in the first round. I do not know why. It was just the feeling that it was dangerous, but now I’m ready to do it. “