’I’ve been working for this’: Domljanovic makes long-awaited return

NEW YORK — When it was over, salty tears stung Ajla Tomljanovic’s eyes after beating Panna Woodwardy in a dramatic third set Monday evening.

It wasn’t just a first-round win at the US Open — it was the 30-year-old Australian’s first tournament of the year after a grueling nine-month battle with a knee injury. It came on the scene of her most remarkable victory, a third-round match a year ago that sent Serena Williams and her 23 Grand Slam singles titles into retirement.

Domljanovic won 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 as Woodwardy scored two points to force a third-set tiebreaker.

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„I have a lot of videos of me in rehab and talking to the camera because I had to have proof of what it was like,” he later told reporters. “At this point in my career, an injury like that, it’s just weird. Even today after losing the first set I thought this crowd was awesome. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

„Even though I didn’t come away with the win, I’m working for it. These two hours of pure adrenaline, joy and problem-solving and competition. I’m blessed in that way.”

Domljanovic will face fourth seed Elina Rybakina on Wednesday after a 6-2, 6-1 win over Marta Kostyuk. Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion and 2023 Australian Open finalist, has never made it past the third round at the US Open.

But Domljanovic was in no mood to think about it. Monday night’s win was something to savor.

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It’s been an odd year or so for Tomljanovic, who was, surprisingly, one of the leading lights in Season 1 of the Netflix series „Breakpoint.” Cameras caught some of the best professional moments of his career when he reached the quarter-finals (for the second year in a row) at Wimbledon, then advanced to the quarter-finals here before falling to Anse Japier.

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Her season ended with a loss to Belinda Bencic in the Billie Jean King Cup final in Scotland in November, but she was forced to withdraw from the United Cup and eventually her home Australian Open when a knee injury reasserted itself in December.

„If you ask me, it’s probably the worst time,” he told reporters in Melbourne. “Even if it happens in six months, I would have said [but] If I’m having a 15 second pity party, this shouldn’t be happening right now.

After knee surgery in January, Domljanovic had hoped to return by the French Open, but the timetable for a comeback has been extended.

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Even for the casual tennis fan, the match against Serena — in the wild crucible of Arthur Ashe Stadium — was unforgettable. Tomljanovic won the match 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, impressing a large crowd, few of whom had ever heard his name.

As „Breakpoint” reveals, Tomlajanovic felt like the most hated woman in New York City that night. Twelve months later, out of the limelight on Court 4, Tomlajanovic received a very different reception.

„That roar when I came out was like, 'Oh my God,’ compared to her,” she laughed. „It was really cool. I think everyone felt bad last year, so they’re going to cheer this year. This girl hasn’t played in 10 months.”

Against Woodwardy, Tomlajanovic started slowly, with little consistency, and easily lost the first set.

„There was a lot of doubt,” she said. „There was definitely more pressure on the knee when I was training, because you give more. It’s an official competition, it’s always more on your body, and I definitely felt it. Once I felt a little more effort on that left leg, I panicked. And that’s normal.”

Gradually, Tomlajanovic found a balance and settled into the rhythms that carried her a year ago. In recent weeks, training with his father, he said he would be „the happiest kid ever” if he won the Open.

„I don’t know how it’s going to go out physically with my team,” Domljanovic said. “You can’t reflect an official match with the points I played with the girls this week. So there was a lot of troubleshooting going on today. I am very proud of that because when I was in my prime, I solved problems very badly.

„Emotionally I’m on a high, but I’m very realistic. We’ll see tomorrow, but I’m sure everything’s fine. After the first set, there was no sharp pain in that leg, nothing, just a lot of fatigue. Knock your heart, something I didn’t think in me. It’s a pleasure to bring.

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