Ajla Tomljanovic will get the chance to achieve one of her career goals on Thursday when she takes on Maria Sharapova at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.
Tomljanovic, the Australian No 2, competes in the one-off women’s match on Day 1 of this year's MWTC where she will face five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova, an opponent she has yet to face on the WTA Tour.
"Playing Maria, it will be really exciting for me," Tomljanovic, 26, told The National. "Over the last couple of years since she came back [from suspension] and even before that I've always wanted to play her, so I'm really looking forward to it."
It will be only the third women's match in 12 editions of the capital's three-day pre-season tournament and the first not featuring Serena Williams. The American 23-time Grand Slam winner lost to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in 2017 and her sister Venus last year.
Tomljanovic will be the first Australian, male or female, to compete at MWTC. She was drafted in as a replacement for American teenager Amanda Anisimova, who withdrew last week due to injury.
“I got a call after Amanda couldn’t play anymore to ask if I wanted to participate and for me it was an easy decision,” Tomljanovic said. “I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi so I’m really excited, especially when they said it was against Maria. She’s been such a great champion all these years, so I’m excited to play there in a couple of days.”
It has been quite a quick turnaround for Tomljanovic, who was competing for her country in the Fed Cup final up until November 10. However, the Australian has been able to rest and recover and is focused on the season ahead.
“It’s definitely been a new experience for me finishing the season a bit later than usual, but mentally and physically I have been able to recharge,” she said. “I’ve had a good three or four weeks of practice under my belt, and I’m eager to start playing more points, so [MWTC] could not have come at a better time.
“I’m looking forward to playing one competitive match against such a great player before playing an official tournament. It’s not something you can really get in practice so I’m excited to get something as competitive as this tournament.”
While her attention is firmly on next season, Tomljanovic has been able to reflect on 2019, describing a campaign which included her fourth WTA Tour final and a central role in Australia’s Fed Cup campaign as “solid”.
“Finishing in the top 50 is always something I look at as a good thing, but if I’m being honest, I wanted to do more than that,” she said. “But there is always next year, and I think I have set myself up to do even better, so I’m excited for what’s to come.”
Part of what she hopes to come for next season are improved showings in the major tournaments. So far her best result was the fourth round of the 2014 French Open, while she has reached the second round of the other three majors, including the past three years at the US Open.
“This off-season I have been working with a new coach so the way we train, we do set goals for grand slams and going deep in those tournaments – playing well against the best players and winning those matches,” Tomljanovic said. “That would be my biggest goal for next season: to get into the second weeks of grand slams.”
If Tomljanovic wants a bit of insider knowledge on what it takes to reach the second week of grand slams, she need only speak to Sharapova after Thursday's match.