By now, the name of Cori – or Coco – Gauff is not new to tennis fans. The 15-year-old has been talked about a lot by experts, fans and fellow players at Wimbledon.
But Coco Gauff’s game is still new and thrilling to behold every time she is put in a situation new to her.
This may sound like a broken record, but if you though Gauff was impressive against 39-year-old Venus Williams in her first match, wait till you saw her poise in the second. And if you thought her straight sets win to reach the third round on her debut was splendid, wait till you saw what the 15-year-old did in the third.
The teen sensation saved not one but two match points and fought back from the brink to beat world No 60 Polona Hercog 3-6, 7-6 (9/7), 7-5 on Friday and make the second week of Wimbledon on her Grand Slam main draw debut.
If her first two matches were about her fearless ball-striking and composed match awareness, the third showcased a quality many top athletes take years to master – the grit, the fight to win ugly.
In the crucible of pressure after being placed on the Centre Court in only her third match, there were early signs that nerves had finally caught up with the usually unflappable schoolgirl.
The world No 313 (as of now) dropped her first set after five matches at Wimbledon as Hercog’s strokes and her own double faults caught up with her. Her body language finally showed that she is only 15 when she dropped her third straight game to go a break down in the second. The shoulder slumped, the brows creased even as the vocal – and partisan – crowd cheered for her.
She faced two match points at 2-5. If she had lost then, she would still have been a good storyline in tennis. But that’s when Gauff went for greatness. She didn’t give up and found the edge of the paint with a backhand slice winner.
Her opponent is a 28-year-old who has been on the edges of Grand Slam second week for a decade now. In her last match, she got the better of the 17th seed Madison Keys. Of course, she did nothing deserve the partisan London crowd but somewhere it must have gotten to her.
She committed a double fault on her second match point and the teen pounced on the sliver of opportunity. She broke Hercog serving for the match on her second chance and pushed for a tiebreak after a nervy passage of play. The tiebreak swung wildly but Gauff scampered along keeping herself in contention winning a 32-shot rally (yes, on grass) with a forehand winner to take the set.
When she finally forced the decider, the visceral emotions broke through – a huge roar and she thumped her chest as her full box went wild.
Hercog had just one person in her box – partner and Croatian coach Zeljko Krajan – the crowd was not with her either and now she needed a medical timeout. The trainer attended to her back before the third set but perhaps the lost chance affected her more. She went down a break early in the third set as Gauff started taking her chances and missing fewer and fewer margins to hold to love and consolidate.
But there was one last twist left in the tale as Hercog broke at 2-4 and put the set back on level at 4-4. So far, the teen had shown immense mentality to stay in the fight, but this last slip could prove costly. How many lives can you have in a game?
Turns out, you don’t need extra lives when you have nerves of steel.
Two straight loves holds serving first and the pressure was on Hercog who gave up match point on serve. The scenes after that match point were incredible – Gauff jumped up and down in delight, the player box erupted, her mother did an ecstatic dance that Twitter loved, the Centre Court and Hill outside were raucous, people watching in her hometown in Florida were fired up.
It was a moment that will go down in Wimbledon history no matter how Gauff performs in the second week. Fighting from a match point down on Centre Court at 15 in nothing short of extraordinary.
Teenage sensations at Slams are not new to women’s tennis, in fact they were the norm not too far back. Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Tracy Austin, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova were all under 18 when they won their first Grand Slam.
But we haven’t seen one in years, partly due to the rule limiting teenage participation after what happened to Jennifer Capriati and partly because the sport has become kinder to older bodies and partly because of the domination of a certain Serena Williams.
But what sets Gauff apart is also what could have held her back – the hype.
With tennis starved of prodigies, she has been put under the spotlight like few others. Serena says she is the new poster girl for young players, Roger Federer – whose company signed her on when she was 13 – stops to chat with her on his way to practice, all cameras are on her, her match was the highest watched on BBC, she is on the biggest court that even the world No 1 Ash Barty has not got as yet.
But she didn’t let it get to her, she fought with and cause of it.
As if beating Venus on grass, coming from match points down to reach the second week in your first Slam wasn’t enough, Gauff has gone and done what some of the top players haven’t been able to at Majors – beat the hype, live through pressure and survive to fight another day.