Already a storied life, 15-year-old Coco Gauff saved two match points to continue her extraordinary journey through the first Wimbledon week, now festooned with an ever growing body of admirers.
The tennis prodigy added fire and ice and a nerveless poise under pressure to her suite of talents as she fought her way back into a match through an epic second set, which she won 9-7 in a tie break before claiming the third and beating the wonderfully tattooed Polona Hercog 6-3 7-6 (7) 7-5.
The youngest player to make it to the round of 16 in a Grand Slam since Jennifer Capriati in 1991, now meets 17th seed and former French Open champion Simona Halep in the fourth round.
Superlatives were scattered around Centre Court for the teenagers fighting spirit and nerveless ability to put the mishit shots and the lost break points behind her, as though they had never happened.
Hercog, with a white sleeve covering her large scull tattoo and only the giant inked rose visible on the crown of her shoulder and the word ‘Famiglia’ on her neck, played a clever game of de-powering her opponent with back hand slices and mixing up her game.
In the end it was the older player who gave way to self doubt, especially when the pressure mounted in the clutch moments of the match. On match point in the second set the Slovenian double faulted and hit long in the next point, which led to her serve being broken.
The energy of Gauff and the ease at which she has stepped up to this level is what defined a late afternoon match that ran into evening. Already she had played three matches in the qualifying tournament that earned her place in the main draw. This was her third match this week and her sixth match overall – the equivalent of a run to a Grand Slam final.
“Right now I’m super relieved it’s over. It’s a long match, my first match on Centre Court,” said Gauff. “People say court one is mine. It could be Centre Court as well,” she added, giving a large adolescent hint to the All England Club scheduling committee.
“I always think I can come back no matter what the score is. I just hit my shots. And the crowd was amazing. Even when I was down match point they were still cheering for me. Right now I’m excited to play. I’ve a mixed doubles match tomorrow so I’ll focus on that now.”
Already the mini-professional, Gauff has given life to the women’s side of the tournament. She has been added value, while Hercog departed in a silent rage for allowing her opportunities to slip and the 15-year-old through to the second week.
Gauff’s mother Candi, a talented track and field athlete and her father Corey, a college basketball star – who moved their family to Florida to give their daughter a better chance at professional tennis – played every point with their daughter from the players’ box.
But the teen showed she belonged in the most famous tennis stadium in the world, when having lost the first set 6-3, she rallied from a 2-5 deficit in the second set, saving two match points along the way.
For some awkward moments in that set suspicions were raised that she was going to go tamely and whenever she hit long or into the net clocking up unforced errors, the crowd swooned with disappointment.
Then Hercog, serving for the match just couldn’t close it out, doubling faulting and sending it into the tiebreaker. Gauff then closed that out in scintillating fashion, winning a 32-shot rally to bring the match to one set each.
The younger player then went up a service break early in the third set and served out for 4-1. But Hercog dug in got the set back on serve, winning four games in a row. Gauff broke her again in the final game, the last point with the 15-year-old at the net watching Hercog’s lob drop down outside the baseline and called out.
Gauff danced up and down and looked towards her parents, also dancing in the players’ box, while the crowd gave her an ovation. Outside on Henman Hill, where the match was being watched by thousands on a warm London evening, she also received a standing ovation.
And here she is. A kid who was a last-minute wild card decision for the qualifying tournament, which she blew through without losing a set. Once in through the Wimbledon backdoor she defeated one of her idols, Venus Williams, then Magdalena Rybarikova, a Wimbledon semi-finalist two years ago.
Halep will be another step up, although she will likely play a back court game which may suit Gauff more than the feathered backhands and slower balls of Hercog. Monday will tell. The journey continues.