US Open 2022 – What it’s like to be Ajla Tomljanovic, the villain in Serena Williams’ fairytale farewell – ESPN

US Open 2022 - What it's like to be Ajla Tomljanovic, the villain in Serena Williams' fairytale farewell - ESPN

NEW YORK — Ajla Tomljanovicthe first words of her postgame interview Friday after hitting Serena Williams was, “I’m really sorry.”

She spoke just a minute after Williams walked off the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for what will likely be her final time as a professional. Tomljanovic defeated her in a three-hour epic match.

It was one of the biggest wins of her life, but there were no celebrations.

“I love Serena as much as you do,” Tomljanovic told the crowd, recalling how she idolized her growing up. “It’s a surreal moment for me.”

Williams saved five match points until the sixth ended her campaign. She built at the US Open, after winning her opening two matches against Thanks Kovinic and world no.2 Anett Kontaveit. Against Tomljanovic, she was the favorite — for the first time in a match this tournament. There was a growing feeling that she could do the unthinkable and win it all; the farewell tour was metamorphosed into the most incredible final last dance that only Serena Williams could create.

But remarkable sporting tales are rare. And for every one of those unicorns, there are many more stories of dream stories ruined by reluctant protagonists.

“I feel like a villain,” Tomljanovic said later.

She is not the first to feel this way, nor the last. Some of sport’s greatest figures could not end their careers on a high note and it leaves a lasting impression on those who stopped their heroes in the final stages.

Take Larry Holmes when he stopped Muhammad Ali in October 1980. Ali came out of a one-year retirement to take on Holmes, but Ali was a shadow of his former self, and Holmes won decisively with Ali’s trainer Talib Angelo Dundee stopping the fight in the 10th round. Holmes shouted in his post-fight interview. “When you fight a friend, for me brother, you can’t get happiness,” Holmes said. “I was fighting a no-win situation.” Ali ibn Abi Talib would fight one more time, and lose.

There are the other kinds of great sports stories where one old man manages to roll back the years to throw the younger generation off guard, only to miss. There were those four memorable days at the 2009 Open where 59-year-old Tom Watson just missed out on the Claret Jug when he lost a 1-shot lead on the final day and then fell in the final to Stewart Cink.

Afterwards, Cink was asked if he felt he had ruined the ending of a Hollywood movie. “No, I don’t feel that way. I feel that whether Tom was 59 or 29, you know, he was one of the field, and I had to play against everyone on the field and the course to come out on top.” Cink said. “I don’t think anything can be taken away. Someone might disagree with that, but it will be hard to convince me.”

He added: “I don’t feel ashamed. I don’t feel disappointed. I’m happy as punch to have won this tournament.”

And then there are the pre-planned goodbyes, like Serena’s, where nostalgia and faith create a frenzy for everyone watching, hoping to witness the last golden moment. Usain Bolt’s farewell to the sport looked for the whole world to be guaranteed a gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2017 World Championships in Athletics in London.

But instead, it was Justin Gatlin who came through for gold, with Bolt in third.

As Gatlin took his victory lap, he was booed by the crowd. “Bolt came up to me after the race and said I didn’t deserve all the booing from the crowd and he’s glad I stayed classy,” Gatlin said. “It’s a surreal moment. He will be a figure that is widely missed, even by me.”

Six days later, Bolt’s hamstring gave out on the final stretch of the men’s 4×100. It would be his final act on the track — the image of the fallen hero, his body giving out, only adding to the legend.

On Friday at Arthur Ashe, Tomljanovic’s triumphs were met with silence, and then a crescendo of noise to try to rouse Williams. The win took Tomljanovic 3 hours, 5 minutes, but was built on a lifetime of skill and mental strength. Every time she hit her first serve into the net, there was a guilty pleasure. The one time her frustration boiled over and she spoke to the referee about being interrupted by noise from the crowd, her anger was met with boos.

To withstand the vast majority of the 23,859 audience cheering for her opponent, she channeled Novak Djokovicthe tactic of. “When the crowd was against him, he just pretended it was for him,” she said after her second-round win. “When they chant, I don’t know, Rafa, Roger, whoever, he hears Novak, Novak. I kind of liked that answer.”

It worked for her. “I used that [tactic] and I also really blocked it as much as I could,” Tomljanovic said after beating Williams. “It got to me a few times inside. 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 certainly wasn’t easy. There was no other way.”

She formed her own “bubble,” and then after three sets of bubble tennis, she watched Williams’ on-court interview and had a million emotions running through her.

“[It was] probably the most conflicted I’ve ever felt after a win,” she said. “During the match I was so eager to win. But then when it was over, 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 she wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for them, I relate to that a lot. The whole moment after that was just hard to handle a little bit.”

The crowd applauded after she spoke — and it felt like the first cheers she’d heard that night, aside from the 15 or so people sitting in her box for the game.

On Sunday, Tomljanovic faces Lyudmila Samsonova in the fourth round. It won’t be back on Ashe, but instead on the next biggest show court — Louis Armstrong. To get back to Ashe, she’ll have to keep winning.

Her biggest Grand Slam comeback to date is two quarterfinal exits at Wimbledon. She overcame one monumental hurdle to try and improve on that.

But whatever happens here, she will always have that honor of being the player to knock Williams out of her final US Open. And with that, she will be the answer to one of sports’ great trivia questions.

“I mean, nobody’s going to pronounce my name right,” she said. “That’s going to suck. But, I mean, I don’t think I’ve been a part of tennis history, so that’s pretty cool… I really wanted to play Serena before she retired.

“If I was the loser today, I would probably be really sad. I don’t want to say I’m sad, but just a little conflicted.”

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