Wimbledon 2019: Coco Gauff defies age to keep SW19 fairytale alive with thrilling fightback against Polona Hercog
Coco Gauff channeled her inner Serena Williams, battling back gloriously from a set and two match points down to defeat Slovakia’s Polona Hercog 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5.
The American was broken again in her first service game as Hercog coolly went into a 3-0 lead
Gauff saved the first match point, at 5-2 on her serve, with a wickedly sliced backhand that landed on the line and spun out
Gauff became the youngest woman to advance to the fourth round since the 15-year-old Capriati’s run all the way to the semi-finals 28 years ago
Tennis had its ‘Oh my Gauff!’ moment on Centre Court on Friday evening. Fifteen-year-old Cori ‘Coco’ Gauff stopped being a wonderkid on her joy ride to the big leagues. She became the big league.
When the American teen had beaten one of her idols Venus Williams – 25 years her senior -- in the Wimbledon first round, in straight sets, it was an eye-opener to her precocious talent. Parallels were drawn with five-time champion Venus’ athleticism and poise. But on Friday, thrust into the Centre Court limelight, Gauff channeled her inner Serena Williams, battling back gloriously from a set and two match points down to defeat Slovakia’s Polona Hercog 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5.
As a Hercog lob sailed long, the Wimbledon crowd ditched its tradition of polite applause and rose in celebration, all 15,000 of them, and joined in with the jumping-for-joy Gauff. She made tennis feel young and raw again.
Given the support she has earned over the past week, and the TV audience she has attracted, Gauff earned a Centre Court spot ahead of former Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and third seed Karolina Pliskova. But it looked like Gauff’s trip to the most revered court in the world would be short-lived.
The 28-year-old Hercog, who has never made it to the fourth round of a Grand Slam, had Gauff on the string for a set and a half. She used her backhand slice intelligently and consistently to construct points and then finished them off with a cracking forehand winner. It was grown-up tactics, and one that seemed to unsettle the super teen. Gauff double-faulted thrice in the ninth game to hand the first set 6-3 to Hercog.
The American was broken again in her first service game as Hercog coolly went into a 3-0 lead. Even though Gauff had boldly declared that she wanted to be “the greatest” and win Wimbledon on her SW19 debut, a third-round loss against a canny opponent would still be better than what most 15-year-olds have managed at the grass-court Slam in nearly 30 years. She would still be the best feel-good story of the year. But Gauff wanted more, and she was ready to fight for it.
Towards the end of the second set, the American started reading Hercog’s backhand slice better and rather than hitting out, she learnt to carve it back into court. Gauff saved the first match point, at 5-2 on her serve, with a wickedly sliced backhand that landed on the line and spun out. Her opponent couldn’t believe how perfectly weighted the ball had been and called for hawk-eye intervention, but it ruled that the ball was on the line.
A little shaken and nervous about serving the match out, Hercog double-faulted on her second match point to give Gauff a little look into the match. She broke the Slovakian and closed out a tight tie-break after winning a 32-shot rally. The pumped-up American, having earned a second life into the game, beat her chest in celebration. To add to everything else, that image made her a social media sensation in minutes.
On CNN, seven-time men’s singles Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander said: “I thought that 'Coco' tactically changed her game, which is very encouraging to me. She didn't hit her way through Hercog so to speak, she was slicing the ball back and giving Hercog no pace suddenly. That's for me the biggest sign of something special in Coco. I don't buy the, 'Oh she deals with pressure.' There's no pressure, she's 15, she's completely unafraid. She's a freak athlete but the tactical part to me is pretty incredible. That I can't relate to at all. There's no way a 15-year-old should be able to understand, ‘I need to do this now.’”
Gauff rode that momentum into the third set, earning a break point in the fourth game of the decider with a backhand volley. She needed one more break point opportunity to finally bag the game and take a 3-1 lead. Though Hercog staged a comeback of her own and levelled the match at 5-5, she wasn’t as sure-footed as the first hour of the contest. Hercog, who made only nine unforced errors in the first set, finished the match with a tally of 45. The American earned the final, decisive break of serve in the 12th game after Hercog spooned a lob over the baseline.
Gauff's parents – Corey and Candi, who have given her a sporting pedigree—led the cheers as the tennis world erupted in celebration. It was a hark back to the days of Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis or even Boris Becker. Tennis once again had a teenage prodigy, and one that was proving more matured than some of their seasoned stars.
She became the youngest woman to advance to the fourth round since the 15-year-old Capriati’s run all the way to the semi-finals 28 years ago. But tennis is a much-changed sport since Capriati’s day, more physical, more competitive, giving the older players the edge.
“Right now I'm just super relieved that it's over,” Gauff said of the match that lasted two hours and 47 minutes. “It was my first match on Centre Court. People were saying No.1 Court was my court but maybe it's Centre. The crowd was amazing. Even when I was down match point they were still cheering me on. I'm just thankful they were believing in me.”
Though everything she’s done at this Wimbledon, right from making it through the qualifiers without dropping a set, defies belief.
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