Ajla Tomljanović poised for US Open comeback after year of misfortune | US Open Tennis 2023

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A year after excelling as the spoiler to a legend in New York, Ajla Tomljanović will make another comeback at the scene of her greatest triumph when she resumes at the US Open next week. The Australian earned rave reviews when ending the career of 23-time major champion Serena Williams in an enthralling third-round encounter at last year’s US Open.

On a night like no other at Arthur Ashe Stadium, given the fervour sparked by the farewell to Williams, Tomljanović was pitted against an icon and a capacity crowd. The quality of her tennis was brilliant as she outlasted the American in three electric sets, so too the poise she displayed in handling a surreal situation with distinction.

Australian tennis had lost its champion Ash Barty to a shock retirement in March. But with Nick Kyrgios, who was favourite for the US Open last year, finding his focus in 2022 and Tomljanović maturing into a contender, the scope for further Australian success at major level appeared bright.

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Instead Kyrgios has barely played due to lingering knee and wrist injuries, with the Wimbledon finalist firing tweets in frustration rather than forehands. Tomljanović, who was ultimately edged by Ons Jabeur 6-4, 7-6 last year in a terrific quarter-final, has not competed since the Billie Jean King Cup finals in Scotland in November.

Tomljanović also reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2021 and last year, but a knee injury derailed her momentum just as she was on the verge of a Top 20 breakthrough. But the 30-year-old, who also missed almost two years of tennis with a serious shoulder injury in her early 20s, will return against Hungarian Panna Udvardy in the first round.

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Alex de Minaur had led a strong crop of Australian talent with distinction on the ATP Tour this year, with eight men earning direct entry into the US Open, while Rinky Hijikata is a wildcard. Australia now has four men ranked inside the world’s Top 50 and another four who hold a double-digit ranking, putting the nation within reach of its goal of 10 Top 100 players. But the prolonged absence of Tomljanović and the retirement of Barty has left a gaping void in terms of Australian representation on the WTA Tour this year.

Ajla Tomljanović of Australia and Serena Williams shake hands at the net
Ajla Tomljanović and Serena Williams shake hands after their third round match at the 2022 US Open. Photograph: Robert Prange/Getty Images

Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup captain, Alicia Molik, said at Wimbledon she was looking forward to the Tomljanović’s return given her leadership qualities. “When she does come back, she knows she has been a quarter-finalist at multiple grand slams,” Molik said. “She knows she has been a great player. Although you come back maybe not having the match fitness … she knows she is capable and she knows her level.”

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There is hope the number of Australian women inside the Top 100 will match the current depth in the men’s ranks within a couple of years. Dasha Saville returned at Wimbledon after a knee reconstruction, while Storm Hunter, Kimberly Birrell and Olivia Gadecki have enjoyed some positive moments as well this year.

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Gold Coast teenager Emerson Jones has performed well in junior events in 2023 and there is significant enthusiasm about the potential of Melisa Ercan, who is based in Brisbane. The Turkish-born talent, who defeated rising star Mirra Andreeva in Traralgon in January, recently received her Australian citizenship and is eligible to represent her adopted nation. “I think we have lots of future national representatives who can do phenomenally well on the senior tour,” Molik said.

Australia’s leading contender, De Minaur, who recently peaked at a ranking of No 12 after reaching the final of the Canada Open, has drawn a qualifier in his opening-round match. The challenge for the 13th seed is to convert his strong tour form to the grand slam stage after a testing year in the majors.

Novak Djokovic proved far too strong for the seven-time ATP titleist in the fourth round of the Australian Open en route to winning the tournament for the tenth time. The 24-year-old then struck Tomas Martin Etcheverry and Matteo Berrettini at the peak of their form on their preferred surfaces at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But De Minaur has always believed he is capable of beating the world’s best and, having won six of his last 11 matches against Top 10-ranked rivals, is now demonstrating this.

The No 2 ranked Australian, Alexei Popyrin, and Thanasi Kokkinakis have drawn qualifiers as well, but Aleks Vukic faces a challenge against 12th seed Alexander Zverev. While Max Purcell and Chris O’Connell will face each other in the first round. Qualifying for the US Open concludes on Friday in New York, which could boost the number of Australian challengers in contention at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre next week.

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