NEW YORK—Alja Tomljanovic wanted to beat Serena Williams, of course. Wanted to seize the chance for a big victory, wanted to add to her career highlights, wanted to reach the fourth round of the US Open for the first time.
Still, it was not easy for her to watch as tears rolled down Williams’s cheeks after Tomljanovic won, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday night.
“Probably the most conflicted I’ve ever felt after a win. 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,’” said Tomljanovic, a 29-year-old Australian who is ranked 46th.
“But then, when it ended, it almost didn’t feel right,” Tomljanovic said. “When she started talking about her family and everything, 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.”
Give credit to Tomljanovic for keeping her composure during the match, never letting the strokes or aura of Williams get too big.
Tomljanovic did her best work at the baseline, hanging with Williams on long exchanges there and coming up with big groundstrokes against as big a hitter as there’s been. And then there was this: Tomljanovic trailed by at least one break in each set, including at 5-3 in the first, 4-0 and 5-2 in the second and 1-0 in the third.
She needed six match points to close it out, but close it out she did.
“I tried,” Williams said, “but Ajla just played a little bit better.”
Williams, as most everyone knows, is the owner of 23 Grand Slam titles—including six at the US Open alone—and that doesn’t even count women’s doubles or mixed doubles.
She began the evening with a losing record in Grand Slam matches, 28-31. She never had won a third-round match at Flushing Meadows until Friday. She has yet to win so much as one quarterfinal match at any major tournament; her big breakthrough to that round came at Wimbledon last year, when she defeated Emma Raducanu to get there (Raducanu would go on to win the US Open two months later).
Tomljanovic returned to the quarterfinals at the All England Club this July, and now has a chance to get that far in New York if she can beat 35th-ranked Liudmila Samsonova on Sunday.
Might be hard to forget about Friday, though, and all that transpired.
Start with the sellout crowd of 23,859, which was pretty much entirely backing Williams, who turns 41 this month and announced last month she was preparing to retire. Tomljanovic tried to block some of the noise out, even covering her head with a towel during changeovers.
Tomljanovic understood the fervor. Indeed, she apologized to the spectators for her victory — not something you hear every day.
But here is why: She considers herself a fan of Williams, too, and has fond memories of watching the American play in Slam finals on TV.
“What she’s achieved is absolutely incredible. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be repeated while I’m still around,” Tomljanovic said. “I still have years left in me. I want to dream bigger than I have so far, because that’s what she embodies.”
Image credits: AP