NEW YORK -- When it was over, after Ajla Tomljanovic had defeated Panna Udvardy in a dramatic third set on Monday evening, salt tears stung her eyes.

This wasn’t merely a first-round victory at the US Open -- it was the 30-year-old Australian’s first match of the year after a harrowing nine-month struggle with a knee injury. And it came at the scene of her most notable triumph, the third-round match a year ago that sent Serena Williams and her 23 Grand Slam singles titles into retirement.

With Udvardy just two points from forcing a third-set tiebreaker, Tomljanovic asserted herself for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win.

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“I have a lot of videos I took of myself rehabbing and talking to the camera because I wanted to have proof of what it felt like,” she told reporters afterward. “At this stage in my career, going through an injury like this, it’s very different. Even today, after losing the first set, I thought this crowd is awesome. I would not want to be anywhere else.
“Even if I didn’t come off with the win, I’ve been working for this. Just this two hours of pure adrenaline, joy, and problem solving and competing. I’m blessed in that sense.”
Tomljanovic will face No.4 seed Elena Rybakina, an emphatic 6-2, 6-1 winner over Marta Kostyuk, on Wednesday. Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion and 2023 Australian Open finalist, has never been past the third round at the US Open.

But Tomljanovic was in no mood to think about that. Monday night's victory was one to savor. 

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It’s been a cathartic year or so for Tomljanovic, who was, surprisingly, among the leading lights in Season 1 of the Netflix series "Break Point". Cameras caught the best professional moments of her career as she reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon (for the second straight year), then advanced to the quarterfinals here before falling to Ons Jabeur. 

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

“If you ask me, this is probably the worst timing ever,” she told reporters in Melbourne. “I’m sure I would have said that even if it happened in six months [but] if I’m taking a 15-second pity party, this shouldn’t have happened now.”

After knee surgery in January, Tomljanovic hoped for a return by the French Open, but the comeback timeline kept extending.

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Even to the casual tennis fan, the match against Serena -- in the wild crucible of Arthur Ashe Stadium -- was memorable. Tomljanovic prevailed with poise, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, impressing a massive audience, some of whom had probably never heard her name.

As "Break Point" revealed, Tomljanovic felt like the most hated woman in New York City that night. Twelve months on, outside the limelight on Court 4, Tomljanovic received a very different reception. 

"That roar when I came out compared to hers, I was like, 'Oh my God'," she laughed. "It felt super nice. I guess everyone from last year felt bad so they were like we're going to cheer this year. This girl hasn't played for 10 months."

Against Udvardy, Tomljanovic started slowly, a little out of sync, losing the first set handily.

“There was a lot of doubt,” she said. “There was definitely more pressure on the knee than when I’m practicing because you’re giving more. It’s an official match, it’s always going to be more on your body and I definitely felt it. Once I felt a little more effort on that left leg I panicked. That’s normal too.”

Gradually, Tomljanovic found an equilibrium and settled into the rhythms that carried her a year ago. In recent weeks, training with her father, she told him she’d be “the happiest kid ever” if she could get a win at the Open.

“I told my team I don’t know how it’s going to go out there physically,” Tomljanovic said. “You can’t replicate an official match with the points I played with the girls this week. So it was a lot of problem-solving going on today. I’m very proud of that because when I was at my fittest, I used to problem-solve very badly.
“I’m on a high emotionally, but I’m very realistic. We’ll see tomorrow, but I’m positive that everything is fine. There was no sharp pain, no nothing, just a lot of tiredness in that leg after the first set. It’s nice to tap into your heart and come up with something that I didn’t think I had in me.”