Ajla and Serena
Here is a sports question that fascinates me endlessly: What do you do when, through no fault of your own, fate has labeled you the villain? How do you handle it? When Jack Nicklaus was a young man, Arnold Palmer was at his zenith both as a player and as a personality. The devotion fans felt for Palmer was fantastic and unbreakable, and so they loathed Nicklaus, called him Fat Jack, mocked his blandness and cheered his misses with the same gusto that they cheered Palmer’s brilliant shots.
Nicklaus, in time, won over the fans and became a hero himself … and also one of Arnie’s closest friends.
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Joe Frazier handled his fate much differently. It was Muhammad Ali who imprisoned Frazier as the villain before their three titanic fights, particularly the last one, the Thrilla in Manila. Ali mocked Frazier, taunted him, called him “gorilla” and said he was too dumb to be heavyweight champion. For Ali, it was a show. For Frazier, a proud man, it was a nightmare he never quite woke up from. “It would have been good if he had lit the torch and fallen in,” Frazier said in 1996, 21 years after the Thrilla, when Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta. “If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
There’s an incredible movie about how Tonya Harding dealt with being cast as the villain (spoiler alert: not well). Jeff Gordon started winning too much when Dale Earnhardt was racing’s star, and many NASCAR fans booed him so loudly that he could hear them over the roar of his engine. (“After a while, I did think, ‘Wait, they're still booing me? What did I do?’”) Novak Djokovic has always had passionate fans, but he has also spent a career playing against the crowds for the sin of not being Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray.
On Friday night, a 29-year-old woman named Ajla Tomljanovic stepped into a New York City furnace to play the biggest role of her life … a role she never asked for and never wanted.
She had come to end the career of the great Serena Williams.
Of course, that’s not really why she had come — Tomljanovic had come to win a third-round tennis match and, for the first time in her checkered and injury-cursed career make it to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Open. She came with her own story and her own dreams — many of those dreams inspired by none other than Serena Williams — but she knew that those meant nothing to anyone else on this night.
They had come for Serena.
“They” included 23,859 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium and millions more watching around the world. They watched because Serena Williams is the most iconic American athlete of our lifetimes, she came from Compton, the daughter of King Richard, the younger sister of Venus, everybody knows her story, and she won 23 grand slam singles titles (six of them U.S. Opens) and 14 grand slam doubles titles with Venus, and she’s a fashion star and an activist and a philanthropist and an entertainment mogul and a part owner of an NFL team and …
... and she is Ajla Tomljanovic’s hero, too. In 1999, Serena won her first U.S. Open; she was 17 years old. That same year, in Croatia, Ajla Tomljanovic started playing tennis. Williams was always the brightest star in the sky as Tomljanovic chased her own tennis dreams through all the junior tournaments, all the challenger matches, the first-round losses, the countless hours of practice. Tomljanovic made her way on the tour, she won and lost and let matches get away from her, broke into the Top 50, lost a year to a shoulder injury, dropped to No. 993 in the world, came back, broke back into the Top 50 and for a time was mentioned in more stories as Nick Kyrgios’ former girlfriend than for her own play.
And then, suddenly, she was across the net from Serena (for the first time) on the biggest tennis court in the world (for the first time) in one of the most anticipated matches in tennis history.
And she was the villain. There was no getting around that.
“Were you nervous?” Tomljanovic was asked.
“I just thought she would beat me,” she responded. “The pressure really wasn’t on me. She’s Serena. She’s the greatest of all time. Period.”
The match itself was a three-plus hour display of competitive fury for both players. Serena Williams, as hard as it is to accept, is no longer one of the best players in the world. She doesn’t have the time to be, not at 40 with a 5-year-old daughter and a million opportunities and responsibilities. She can no longer consistently win extended rallies with the top players, and she can no longer summon the best serve in the history of women’s tennis on demand, and too often now, her shots spray off course. She spent a lifetime breaking down opponents. Now they can break her down.
As such, she is left relying on her aura and tennis genius, on her ability to land haymakers and on pure muscle memory kicking in, like it always has, when the match is on the line.
Of course, even this version of Serena Williams CAN beat anyone at any time, as she proved in the second round when she outfought Anett Kontaveit, the No. 2 player in the world. That performance inspired hopes of a miracle, desperate hopes that Serena Williams could actually go out by winning one more U.S. Open title.
On Friday, the New York City crowd was not just behind Serena but in front of her and to her sides as well. In a small place in her heart, even Tomljanovic was rooting for her.
It did look, for a time, like Serena would simply blow Ajla off the court. The most gaping weakness in Tomljanovic’s game is her relatively weak second serve, and Serena pounded away at it the way Ali used to go after small cuts over his opponents’ eyes. Late in the first set, Williams unleashed terrifying returns — her trademark shriek piercing the air — and she broke Tomljanovic at love and found herself serving for the first set. The crowd noise was indescribable, as loud as tennis lifers had ever heard.
But, yes, Ajla came armed with her own story. She, too, has toughness. She broke back by being steadier than Serena. She broke Serena again by hitting a clean backhand winner down the line. She took the first set 7-5.
Serena then raged to a 4-0 lead in the second set; this looked more like vintage Serena, only once more Tomljanovic came back, pushing Serena to make mistakes (including a double fault on break point), forcing a tiebreak. Serena won the tiebreak as the crowd seemed to lift her, but it came at an obvious cost: Serena looked exhausted — not just physically exhausted but emotionally exhausted, too.
What goes through the mind of a legend when they can see the end?
Then … what was going through the mind of Ajla Tomljanovic as she got ready for the most important set of her life? You often hear athletes talk about how “It is us against the world.” This really was her story. Tomljanovic knew — in full and vivid detail — that she and her family were pretty much the only people in the stadium or the world who actually wanted Serena to lose.
But — and here’s the irony — it was Serena who had showed her the way. Because what has Serena’s whole career been about? It has been about finding a way to win. There were matches, many matches, when Serena simply overmatched and overpowered her opponents. But that’s not what took her to the mountaintop. No, that part has been about astounding comebacks and tense third sets and finding the best in herself time after time when the moment demanded it.
And in the third set, with the crowd cheering her double faults and crying in anguish when she hit winners, with Serena pulling out every trick she has ever picked up in 20-plus years of tennis virtuosity, Ajla Tomljanovic found the best in herself. “It was not easy,” she would say, “but there was no other way.”
She pounded winners into the open court as Williams watched helplessly. She parried Serena’s hardest blows and then followed up with crushing shots of her own. She returned Serena’s biggest serves. She took a 5-1 lead in the set.
And then came the final, epic game with so many match points and break points that it was hard to keep up. At one point, Serena seemed to be brushing away tears. But she kept on finding ways to extend the match, raging against the light, and Tomljanovic’s second serves, sending the crowd into an even higher state of frenzy.
Finally, though, the final point came — Serena was controlling the last point of her tennis career (as it should be), but then she hit into the net. That was it. Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-7, 6-1. Serena came to the net and gave Tomljanovic a perfunctory handshake; it looked like Tomljanovic wanted to say something more, but there was no time. Serena stepped back onto the court with a tearful smile to soak in the overwhelming New York cheers.
“Thank you, Daddy, I know you’re watching,” she said to her father, Richard, who has suffered two strokes this year. "Thank you, Mom. … I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus. Thank you, Venus. She is the only reason Serena Williams ever existed.
“It’s been a fun ride. It’s been the most incredible ride and journey I’ve ever been on in my life.”
All the while, Ajla Tomljanovic looked on with a blank expression on her face. It had been the greatest victory of her career, and there was no one to share it with. She could not even describe how she felt. Happy? Not exactly. Triumphant? Not exactly. “Just the whole moment was just tough to handle a little bit," she would say.
And after Serena Williams walked off the court and into the locker room, and the door closed behind her, Tomljanovic spoke to the crowd that barely knew her name and had come only to see her lose. The sound as she stepped to the microphone was a rumble of disappointment and reluctant cheers. “Well, I’m feeling really sorry,” she said, “because I love Serena just as much as you guys do.”
There were a few more cheers after that as Tomljanovic handled the moment with extraordinary grace. This is because most people, even when it is against their rooting interests, can’t help but be captivated by grace. It’s one of the good parts of being human.
The surest thing about sports is that time stops for no one. It didn’t stop for Babe Ruth or John Unitas, didn’t stop for Willie Mays or Wayne Gretzky, didn’t stop for Michael Jordan (if time was going to stop for ANYONE, surely it would have been Air Jordan), didn’t stop for Chris Evert or Joe Louis or Michael Phelps or Jim Brown or even George Foreman. Somebody was going to beat Serena Williams in her final match. Ajla Tomljanovic did not think it was going to be her. But it was her.
She was asked what Serena Williams means. And she said this:
“I think she embodies that idea that no dream is too big. You can do anything if you believe in yourself and love what you do and have a support system to help you.”
Knowing the end will come … that’s a pretty good way for the curtain to fall for Serena Williams.
Ajla Tomljanovic, meanwhile, next plays Ludmilla Samsonova, the No. 35 player in the world, as she tries to reach her first U.S. Open quarterfinal. The world, alas, keeps spinning.