Amidst a desperate moment for Australian tennis three years ago, the country’s officials realized they had been blessed with another talent of considerable power.
Ajla Tomljanovic, who continued her sensational performance at the US Open in New York on Sunday night, came away with the silver medal after a crushing Fed Cup final defeat to France in Perth 2019.
The 29-year-old, who fought off eight set points in the first set of her 7-6, 6-1 victory over Ludmila Samsonova on Sunday, was badly beaten on the first day of the final.
Captain Alicia Molik had back-up options for the reverse singles. But she sensed a rare resilience in a woman who overcame a horrific shoulder injury only to return to tennis.
After Ash Barty suffered a shock loss in the third match, Tomljanovic found her best form to give Australia another chance when she was too much for Pauline Parmontier.
The odds and a chance to end the Fed Cup drought dating back to 1974 went begging. But Tomljanovic earned a lot of credit for her resilience, as well as the way she consoled her distraught teammates after the loss.
During these two years, respect and admiration for Tomlyanovich only increased. Taking on the mantle of Australia’s new standard-bearer in women’s tennis following Barty’s surprise departure in March, Tomljanovic is relishing the responsibility.
Her performances at Wimbledon, where she lost to eventual champion Elena Ribacini in the quarterfinals, and now at the US Open, show that she is a force to be reckoned with.
The 29-year-old, who will jump to a career-high ranking of at least 30 when the tournament concludes, could have been excused for his disappointment on Sunday night.
Just 48 hours earlier, she had shown remarkable fortitude as she faced off against Serena Williams and 24,000 screaming fans to produce the performance of her life.
To date, that is. This ended the career of the legend. She will never play in front of such a formidable crowd again, even if she makes it to the grand final. A lesser player would have been exhausted by the effort.
The crowd in attendance at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Sunday was much smaller in comparison. The atmosphere, as a result, was much more equal. It turned out that it is difficult to restore adrenaline.
Tamljanovic struggled for rhythm early in the match against an in-form opponent who had won her previous 18 tennis sets and played with immense confidence and power. But trailing 2-5 in the first set, the resistance she gave Williams came to the fore.
Her inner voice told her that if she could fight, things could turn around.
“It was huge. I came out feeling pretty flat and I thought to myself, the last 48 hours have been a lot,” she said. “But something inside me said, ‘I don’t want to stop there.’ I have to give a little more fight even if I go down.
It was a huge fight and her willpower earned her the full support of the small group of fans left after a long day on the court who chanted her name for the rest of the set. Her service game at 4-5 lasted 18 minutes and she saved seven set points in it.
Two of these efforts were particularly brilliant. In the third, she executed a perfectly weighted drop shot to the left, and a couple of points later ripped the winner off a forehand down the line.
In the tiebreak, she overcame another set point – and some nerves of her own – to take the lead. And it broke Samsonova, who won two US Open titles.
The key was calmness, Tomlyanovic said. “I think it’s just about staying in the moment. She played well,” she said. “I really don’t have time to think because the game is going fast. I just have to stay as calm as possible, even though I’m dying inside.”
Tomljanovic, who has close family in south-east Queensland and adopted Australia in 2014, deleted her social media before the game against Williams.
She knew she had to be solely focused on shutting down the crowd. But she looked on Saturday, the praise for her actions was a reward that gave a charge of energy.
“I’m going to say that on Friday night, I’ve never felt this in my life, even though most of you were going to see Serena, I still felt the love,” she said.
The task ahead doesn’t get any easier as she will play either Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabert or another talented Russian in Veronika Kudermetova in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. But these players will know one thing: Tomljanovic is tough and only getting tougher.