Before she became the player who effectively ended one of the greatest tennis players of all time’s career, Ajla Tomljanovic told reporters she had a thought while lying in bed one day about the possibility of facing Serena Williams for the first time inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Tomljanovic added that she — like countless others in attendance for Friday night’s third-round matchup of the U.S. Open and those on the streets outside of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center grounds and watching at home — has been a fan of the 23-time major champion since she was a kid.
So to take a 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1 win over Williams in front of a sold-out crowd of people who wanted nothing more than to see her opponent prevail, Tomljanovic said she felt like the villain.
“Probably the most conflicted I’ve ever felt after a win,” said Tomljanovic, who moves on to the fourth round against Russia’s Ludmilla Samsonova. “During the match, I was so eager to win. I mean, I wanted to win as much as the next person because I didn’t look at her like, ‘Oh, Serena, her last tournament.’ But then when it ended, it almost didn’t feel right.
“When she started talking about her family and everything, yeah, I got emotional because I can relate to having a strong bond with your family. When she said that she wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for them, I relate to that a lot. Just the whole moment after was just tough to handle a little bit.”
Tomljanovic admitted she was extremely nervous prior to the match against Williams, going as far to say she felt a bit fearful. If she hadn’t said that, no one would’ve ever known. The 29-year-old was steady, focused and in complete control from start to finish of her first match on Arthur Ashe and her first matchup with Williams, a generational icon to whom she had looked up.
The biggest challenge for Tomljanovic was blocking out the noise, which boomed in favor of Williams after every point. There were blatant cheers against Tomljanovic, who had to listen to celebrations after every fault and every mistake.
“It did get to me a few times internally,” she said. “I mean, I didn’t take it personally because, I mean, I would be cheering for Serena, too, if I wasn’t playing her. But it was definitely not easy. There was no other way.”
Tomljanovic’s head to head record against Samsonova is 1-1, with their most recent meeting resulting in a three-set win for the latter on her way to securing the Washington Open earlier this month. In acknowledging how well Samsonova has been playing as of late, Tomljanovic said she’s already put the emotional high of defeating Williams behind her as she prepares for the fourth round.
Still, Tomljanovic admitted it was “pretty cool” to be part of Williams’ big farewell and ultimately tennis history. But it was her moment, too.
“I felt pressure, from myself, where I’m at in my career,” she said. “I feel like I belong here now. That’s why I expect myself to perform well in these circumstances.”
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