On the final day of any golfing tournament Tiger Woods always wears red. It’s a tradition he’s maintained since his junior days at Stanford University, and one he insists has aided his biggest wins. Similarly, the cricketer Steve Waugh was never seen batting without his lucky red handkerchief peeking out of his left pocket, while the 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams reportedly wore the same pair of socks for full tournament runs throughout her career.
Many athletes commit to superstitions or pre-game rituals, leaning on talismans or divine intervention for performance enhancement. Ajla (pronounced like “Isla”) Tomljanović is not one of them — though not for lack of trying. During a winning streak at the 2014 French Open, the 72nd-ranked Tomljanović dined at a nearby Thai restaurant, a questionable choice that now makes her laugh.
“I would never eat Thai, it’s so heavy,” she says. “But I was 21; I was invincible.” Upon her return to Roland-Garros the following year, Tomljanović leaned into the cuisine’s supernatural potential and insisted on eating Thai. She lost her next match. “I was like, ‘This is so stupid,’ ” she says on a Zoom call from her home in Boca Raton, Florida. “I just know that has no impact on how I’ll do, so my mind just doesn’t go there.”
Harnessing the power of the mind, both on and off the court, is something Tomljanović has been working on a lot over the past few years, and it’s a skill she needs this week. At the time of writing, it’s summer in Australia, a time defined by bushfires (sometimes), school holidays (always) and, for two sweltering weeks, a national fixation with tennis, which takes hold as the sport’s top competitors stake out Melbourne for the Australian Open.
This year, Tomljanović was primed to succeed. The Open’s reigning female champ, Ash Barty, shocked the world last March by announcing her retirement and, in September, Tomljanović made headlines by playing the villain in Williams’ swan song, defeating the GOAT in her final match at the US Open. The stage was set for the nation’s new golden girl to step into her own.
But a lingering injury to her left knee was causing concern. In late December, Tomljanović withdrew from a United Cup match with Great Britain’s Harriet Dart then, in early January, she announced that she was bowing out of the Adelaide International. Fans remained hopeful for a home Grand Slam appearance, but a two-word tweet posted a few days before she was due to compete confirmed the worst: “I’m sorry.” An extended statement released via Tomljanović’s Twitter and Instagram accounts explained she wasn’t in a state to play (she’s since undergone minor surgery and will be off the court for several months).
“You never learn, really, to cope with these moments,” she says of leaving the tournament to return to Florida.
“To miss out on your home Slam and then have to watch from the sidelines could be the most painful thing an athlete can go through.” She smiles. “Okay, maybe that’s dramatic,” she says, “but it just feels like that right now.”
“Cruel” is not a word often conjured in reference to tennis. The manicured courts, strict dress codes and lack of helmets, mouthguards and player-on-player contact paint the pastime with an air of aristocratic refinement. But the game can be lonely, quiet and psychologically vicious (in his 2009 book, “Open”, the former world No. 1 Andre Agassi likens the game to solitary confinement). Players are not afforded mid-game coaching and, barring doubles, there is no reassuring banter among teammates.
For those who aren’t Williams, Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, chances are the losses severely outnumber the wins and, unlike other sports, players aren’t drafted or contracted to teams, so for many it is a job without security and income. Ranking points expire each year, meaning each game of each tournament becomes a defence of one’s place on the ladder. An ill-timed injury can prove fatal to a career. And when a player finishes their last set? “No matter who retires, tennis goes on,” says Tomljanović. “And that’s almost the cruellest part of the sport: the train doesn’t stop for anyone.” Skills will take you far, but this game also requires grit.