Why up-and-comer Ajla Tomljanovic is switching nationalities
STANFORD, Calif. -- Ajla Tomljanovic is poised to go from being the No. 1 Croatian to the No. 3 Australian on the WTA Tour.
As first reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, the 21-year-old from the Croatian capital of Zagreb is switching nationalities to secure the support of Tennis Australia. Tomljanovic, ranked 55th, will compete under the Australian flag at the U.S. Open next month, joining the likes of No. 19 Sam Stosur and No. 31 Casey Dellacqua.
"When I was a kid, it was always the dream to compete with the best girls and be the best I can be," Tomljanovic told SI.com. "And with Australia, I really believe I can maybe reach the next level and maximize my potential."
Tomljanovic's tennis drove the switch. She teamed up with Australian coach David Taylor, who is employed by Tennis Australia, during the offseason and their trial period has been a success. Tomljanovic hit a career high of No. 51 last month after upsetting No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska to make the fourth round of the French Open.
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But top-level coaching does not come cheap. Discussions about working with Tennis Australia began in January between Tomljanovic's agent, Max Eisenbud, and the head of the organization, Craig Tiley. In exchange for representing Australia, Tomljanovic will receive the full support of Tennis Australia, including access to coaching, nutrition advisers and training facilities. That's a big upgrade for Tomljanovic, whose father has served as her fitness trainer.
"For someone like her who came to the U.S. with not so much money to follow the dream to become a great player -- all these great players have all this and the other players are competing against it," Eisenbud said.
"When I was looking for a coach, I was looking for a top coach," Tomljanovic said. "If you want the best, you're going to have to pay. They don't come for free. The elite definitely have a great support system and team around them. It's hard. You have to be able to finance that."
Tomljanovic has lived in the United States since she was 13. She has trained at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., and considers Chris Evert a mentor. She speaks perfect English. Her older sister, Hana, plays tennis for the University of Virginia. Tomljanovic didn't reach out to the USTA about a possible partnership, though. In fact, she didn't contact any other federation. Eisenbud says they were not shopping around. Rather, the Tennis Australia opportunity happened to be the perfect fit.
"In Croatia, we don't really have the resources," Tomljanovic said. "We're a small country. When I started, my parents were my sponsors. Now it's come to a point where maybe there is a gap where I can get a better situation, better resources, better conditions. I think it does make a difference. Hopefully we see it."
By rule, Tomljanovic can't represent Australia at WTA tournaments or the Fed Cup until her citizenship is finalized. Until then, she can represent Australia at the Grand Slams. She is excited and at peace with her decision, which will leave No. 79 Donna Vekic as the top-ranked Croatian.
"If I get negative feedback at home [in Croatia], I can't do much about that," she said. "I can tell my story and my reasons, but at the end of the day I don't need to give an explanation because it's something that I decided and I'm very happy with my choice. I'll be very honored to represent a country like Australia."
Tomljanovic hasn't settled on a location when she moves to Australia in November, though Melbourne and Brisbane are the front-runners. Given its distance from Europe and North America -- where the bulk of the season takes place -- Australia can be a difficult place to set up a training base. Lleyton Hewitt has a home in the Bahamas and Stosur resides in Florida. Tomljanovic will still have access to the Evert Academy if she needs a secondary base during the year.
"It was a big decision to change citizenship, but when I put all the pieces together, whenever I went to Australia I really loved it there," Tomljanovic said. "They have a big sports culture, and I can relate to that because Croatia is kind of like that too."
Tomljanovic lost to Andrea Petkovic in the first round of the Bank of the West Classic on Monday, extending her main-draw losing streak to four.