When Ajla Tomljanovic was a little girl, she asked her father about a prized photograph of him holding a big trophy on his head. Ratko Tomljanovic was a great professional handball player, winning two European Championships for Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and was the captain of the Croatian national team; before that, he was a member of the Yugoslavian team.
His daughter wanted to know where that shiny trophy was, because she had never seen it in their home. Ratko Tomljanovic explained that it had been a team award, and that he did not get to keep it. Unimpressed, Ajla told him that she would not play handball.
“I want the trophy just for myself,” she said.
So Ajla Tomljanovic chose tennis, and she is still striving for that big trophy, for a professional championship. She has shown the talent for it, though her nerves have betrayed her at times — what she calls “the bad Ajla.”
But on Friday night, Tomljanovic, who is ranked 46th, demonstrated to herself and the world that she had the mettle and the shotmaking ability to win a trophy of her own. If she wins four more matches in the coming week, it will be one of the most coveted in sports.
That night, Tomljanovic beat the six-time U.S. Open champion Serena Williams, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, in front of a raucous, partisan crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York to advance to the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the first time.
“I feel like I belong here now,” she said.
That was not necessarily what she was thinking in the moments before she took the court.
Tomljanovic was nervous, and for good reason. Williams was her idol, and Tomljanovic had never played her before. She had never played in Ashe. In fact, she had never even practiced on that court. She had asked tournament organizers if they could find a time for her to hit some balls in the largest tennis stadium in the world at least once, but nothing was available.
Then there was the matter of her playing the role of villain, of facing down nearly 24,000 fans, virtually all of them screaming for Williams to win, and millions more watching on television. It would make anyone a tad edgy.
Tomljanovic confided the anxiety to her father, who was happy that his daughter admitted to the nerves. Better than hiding them, he thought. Ratko Tomljanovic also knew about playing in hostile environments, especially in Europe, where handball is intensely popular and the stakes are high. He tried to calm Ajla by evoking the almost comical role of the hard-bitten veteran of scrappy handball matches — the kind of yarn he had spun to her and his other daughter, Hana, many times before.
“Don’t tell me you are afraid of the crowd,” he told Ajla. “I played in some terrible places with 5,000 people booing and spitting, and one time the crowd came on the floor and there was a big fight. Don’t tell me it’s hard because some guy in the 35th row is yelling at you.”
It was not exactly Mickey yelling at Rocky. It was a speech designed to lighten the mood, and it worked. Ajla laughed. “She doesn’t care about what I did, at all,” Ratko said, chuckling.
But then he brought out another motivational tool. He mentioned one of his favorite movies, “For the Love of the Game,” in which a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, played by Kevin Costner, reflects on his life and career in the midst of 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 told her, the pitcher focuses explicitly on the catcher’s glove and ignores everything else in the stadium. Ajla understood, and she followed the advice with her own unique resolve.
She blocked out all the noise, the roars for Williams, the indecorous cheers when Tomljanovic missed a serve, all the celebrities in the stands, the video tributes to Williams and her own childhood adulation for Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion standing across the net and playing as well as she had in years. But Tomljanovic was better.
“From the first moment I walked on court, I didn’t really look around much,” she said. “I was completely in my own little bubble.”
From the outside, as she engaged in furious rallies and traded sensational shots with Williams, it looked like the best Tomljanovic had ever played, especially given the circumstances. But she cited her fourth-round win over Alizé Cornet at Wimbledon in July, which vaulted her into the quarterfinals there for the second year in a row. Those results reflect her best performances in a major tournament, for now.
On Friday, Tomljanovic, who plays for Australia, may have won the match in the set she lost. Even though she was trailing 0-4 and 2-5, she refused to give the set away, fighting all the way back to a tiebreaker, which Williams won. But it took its 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 was a monster game that lasted over 15 minutes.
“I know how much I hate playing players that don’t give up anything so freely that you have to work for every point,” Tomljanovic, 29, said. “I hate playing players like that.”
That day, she was the hated player with all the mental toughness and savvy. She said that she felt bad for Williams, and that she always identified with her because Williams was initially coached by her father and played alongside her sister Venus. Tomljanovic was also coached by her father and grew up playing with Hana, who played at the University of Virginia.
After Ajla won, Ratko Tomljanovic sat quietly in the player garden, barely 10 feet from where Williams and a large group of family and friends gathered before leaving the grounds. He reflected on the mentality his daughter exhibited on Friday and traced it back to when she decided she wanted that trophy for herself, and when he took Ajla and Hana to a handball camp when they were schoolgirls. Ajla would never pass the ball. She would keep shooting until Ratko told her she had to pass.
“She said, ‘No, no, Daddy, when I have the ball, I just go and score,’” he said.
He saw a little of that again in Ashe. He also saw a little of Kevin Costner.