BRISBANE, Australia - After a career-best season that saw Ajla Tomljanovic finish her first complete season since shoulder surgery with a career-high ranking, the Australian is ready to make up for lost time. The 25-year-old has kicked off her 2019 season with a bang at the Brisbane International, tallying strong wins over Katerina Siniakova and Johanna Konta to make her second Premier quarterfinal in six months.
Twelve months ago, Tomljanovic was still in the midst of her tough road back. Shoulder surgery in early 2016 effectively wiped out her ranking, but after toiling away on the ITF Circuit, she was able to boost her ranking back up to No.118 in January 2018. Quietly and gradually, Tomljanovic built up her best season yet, making two finals in Rabat (l. Mertens) and Seoul (l. Bertens) to finish at a career-high at No.43.
That achievement meant more to Tomljanovic than she expected.
"I didn't set any goals at the beginning of last year," she said. "And that was just because I didn't want to put pressure on myself after everything.
"It's different, you know, when you go through things, you don't want to put that kind of pressure that I used to have. I just want to be proud of where I've gotten, and then actually when I got the career high, I didn't even know because I even forgot what it was.
"So that was kind of special just because only you know what you went through, not people that just watch you.
"Like someone came to me at the off-season and they were like, oh, what's going on with you? I just see your ranking go up and down a lot. I'm like, yeah, it's just like that with me.
"So people don't know, so it's kind of for your own satisfaction."
The challenge for Tomljanovic now is to keep that pressure-free attitude as she aims for her goal of the Top 30. A self-professed perfectionist prone to negative thoughts, Tomljanovic credits her experience of taking tough losses for her ability to stay strong in the tight moments now.
"The thoughts that come into my head are still the same," she said. "It's just how I respond to it now. Before it's like, oh, my God; don't lose; don't choke. Really negative.
"I still have these thoughts, but I just kind of try to stay in the moment and in the present and not worry about the next point or the next game. It's just kind of in life, too, like sometimes I worry about what I'm going to do in a month, and you kind of lose track of what you're doing right now.
"I tend to think when I win matches like this, oh, this is normal. And then when I lose, it's like the end of the world. That's just my personality. I'm a perfectionist.
"So my dad and my mom, they think that it's important for me to just kind of enjoy myself, because they know I love what I do. But I tend to kind of sometimes go into my shell and be more negative than positive just because I always want to do better. And it's not right a lot of times, because when are you going to enjoy it? When you finish playing, you're not going to remember anymore. So now is the time to kind of take a breath and see how far I've come.
"Naturally I kind of have more expectation. But my dad is here, he's kind of the best at that. He knows me well, so he'll see me be nervous and kind of cranky in practice, and he'll just remind me of where I've been and what I've overcome and that it's just really supposed to be kind of fun, even though it's a job.
"So I try to keep that mindset, because not every player can lean on that and have that experience. So I think I should use it in my favor definitely."
With her father and coach Ratko in her corner, Tomljanovic had her first proper off-season and pre-season in years, spending the time training in Florida. Having seen a number of matches slip through her fingers from winning positions last season, they focused on her finishing.
"If it compared to the year before, I was still playing until like December," Tomljanovic said. "So just knowing that I'm back in the flow of having an off-season and training and having time at home, it just felt like a nice reward, even though I killed myself in the off-season."
"We did a lot of boring stuff in the off-season, a lot of shorter balls that I would put away, and you know, try to finish points off better. But at the end of the day, practice is so much different than actual matches. So it's going to take me going out there and doing it and executing it. You know, that builds confidence, and then it's kind of like riding a bike after that.
"But what I kind of felt over the last year, where I lost to better-ranked players was when I would get in a good position, I would kind of lose these points that were on my racquet. And against the top players they don't give those points away, and I had a lot of loose errors there, because over the year I felt like my level was good at one point, and it was just little things that didn't go my way, and it was kind of on my hands. So I just kind of tried to change that."
"I mean I didn't change anything drastically with my game style. I think it's pretty simple. I'm a tall, big girl. So I'm always going to try to be aggressive."
With the best yet to come for the talented ball-striker, she recalled her lowest moment after undergoing surgery and realizing the tough road ahead.
"The first couple of months after surgery you're kind of enjoying life," Tomljanovic said. "You're doing things you haven't ever done. You don't have a schedule. Your rehab didn't really start yet.
"And then it kind of sinks in that you have to put in the hours for rehab, so your day isn't really as open as it was, but you're not doing what you love; you're just doing rehab.
"So it kind of sinks in that there's a lot to go, and no one really cares anymore. No one is really messaging you, not that that helps, but it's nice to be in the loop. And then it kind of sinks in that you're kind of in it for the long haul and you have to dig deep. But at the end of the day the sun rises the next day and if you kind of just have a good mindset, it's okay."
"I think the sport is always there for you, no matter what happens to you. If you have sort of that good mindset and determination, it will always be there to come back. Even people that kind of quit for different reasons, not even surgery.
"I think it's good that way because it always gives you an opportunity to come back to it. It doesn't tell you you can't come back. So it just proves to you if you have kind of the heart to do it, you can."