Already tennis’ newest favorite, Cori “Coco” Gauff earned cries of “we love you” on her debut appearance on the most famous court in the world as she engineered an incredible rally to keep her historic Wimbledon run going.
It looked like her stay at the grass-court grand slam was about to end but the 15-year-old saved two match points to defeat the tattoo sporting Polona Hercog 3-6 7-6 (9-7) 7-5 to the crowd’s delight on Center Court.
She left the arena to rapturous applause and gave autographs to her adoring public while Hercog could only rue what might have been.
Indeed spare a thought for the Slovenian, whose lone support from her box came from her coach and husband, Zeljko Kragan. There was a cast of 17, meanwhile, next door in Gauff’s box.
Before play even started, Gauff was the fourth favorite according to some British oddsmakers despite only ever winning one top-level encounter prior to Wimbledon.
Beating Venus Williams in the first round — bridging a 25-year age gap — to become the youngest player to win a match here since Jennifer Capriati in 1991, sweeping past 2017 semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova and then coming back against Hercog might push her up even further.
Those displays, combined with the massive support she is receiving and her pedigree as a junior, presumably earned Goff a place on Center Court Friday instead of former world no. 1s Caroline Wozniacki — who lost earlier — and Karolina Pliskova.
She earned a clash with another former no. 1 Monday in Simona Halep, who is likely keeping track of her progress.
Making it through qualifying — as a wildcard — Gauff might be especially happy to have an extra day off to rest, recover and prepare for the Romanian. Wimbledon is the lone major where there is no play on the middle Sunday.
Capriati made the semifinals here as a 15-year-old 28 years ago and if Gauff defeats Halep, it would be a brave individual to bet against her matching that achievement.
The 60th-ranked Hercog stood on the cusp of history herself, having never made a grand slam fourth round.
As gutsy as Gauff was in rallying from a set and 5-2 deficit, Hercog will lament not putting her younger opponent away.
The American saved the first match point with a backhand slice that caught the line and kick start her comeback.
If there was little Hercog could do then, it was quite the opposite on the second match point at 40-30 in the ensuing game.
Closing out any match at a major is difficult and especially so when bidding to get to pastures new. The tension was there for all to see as Hercog double faulted.
Then on the next point, presumably rattled, Hercog’s short forehand sailed long.
She got to deuce once again but was punished by a brilliant Gauff reply when she couldn’t put away a volley.
After her wicked slice neutralized the Gauff backhand that had done so much damage in the first two rounds and ripping forehands, her errors increased.
Gauff was still under severe pressure at 5-6 after Hercog regained some of the momentum but got it back immediately when the Slovenian missed a smash long on top of the net to open the game.
To relieve the tension, a bird landed on Gauff’s side at 2-2 in the tiebreak before being chased away by a ball kid.
On the next point, a net cord winner handed Gauff a 3-2 advantage after Hercog’s admirable defense.
She lost the next three points, however.
Then came two forehand misses from Hercog as the Slovenian’s difficulty in closing out proceedings resurfaced.
Gauff took her third set point following a marathon rally that featured the duo trading backhand slices prior to the American ripping a backhand to open the court. A swinging volley forced a third set.
Hercog called for the trainer and Gauff left for a bathroom break. The momentum carried over with Gauff leading 4-1 in the third, only for Hercog to get to 4-4.
But showing incredible poise — and perhaps this is where youth also helps — Gauff came out swinging with big serves to get to 5-4.
Her opponent then paid for not capitalizing on a game point at 5-6, with Gauff leaping and dropping her racket after Hercog’s lob went long 13 minutes shy of the three-hour mark.