In her first two main-draw matches at Wimbledon, 15-year-old Cori Gauff was unaffected by the stage she was on, rising to the occasion on No. 1 Court to defeat two worthy foes in Venus Williams and Magdalena Rybarikova.
On Friday, Gauff was upgraded to Centre Court billing. With a heightened sense of interest around her, Gauff, for the first time, came out flat. Her third-round opponent, Polona Hercog, dictated the match—until twice being one point away from crossing the finish line. But Gauff’s remarkable resilience and composure lifted her, as she saved two match points to continue her dream run with a 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 victory.
"I always knew that I could come back no matter what the score was. I'm happy that slice down the line went in," Gauff told the BBC, referring to one of her match-point saves. "The crowd was amazing. Even when I was down match point, they were still cheering me on. I'm super thankful they believed in me."
As a result of her win, Gauff will enter the Top 150 of the WTA rankings, vaulting from her current standing of No. 313. Bidding to match then 15-year-old Jennifer Capriati’s 1991 semifinal run at the All England Club, Gauff, who came through the qualifying rounds after receiving a wild card, will next take on 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep. The No. 7 seed dismissed Victoria Azarenka, 6-3, 6-1, in a battle of former world No. 1s.
Through the first six games against Hercog, the American hit just one winner to nine unforced errors (including two double faults). Her opponent was equally as tight, making just four of her 15 first serves. Despite that, Hercog applied pressure in each of Gauff’s service games to eventually break for a 4-3 lead after winning a marvelous 27-shot rally with a well-struck forehand down the line.
The Slovenian took 13 of the final 14 points in the first set, with Gauff pushing her fifth double fault well long to drop her first set of the tournament. Hercog refused to let up, as Gauff netted a forehand sitter, a shot she decelerated on more often than usual for the first hour, to go down an early break in the second—uncharted territory for the teenager to navigate in a match of this magnitude.
Facing match point at 2-5, Gauff found a line with a nifty backhand slice side-spinning winner to stay alive, and won the ensuing point, showcasing composure beyond her years with gritty defense, prompting ESPN’s Chris Evert to state, “remember this point. Tennis can turn on a dime.”
It certainly did: on her second match point in the next game, Hercog hit a double fault, followed by an erratic forehand to give Gauff her first break point. Though she would miss on that break chance, Gauff's superb scrambling and Hercog's discomfort at net set up a second opportunity, which the teenage sensation grabbed before holding to level the set at five games apiece.
With Gauff serving at 5-6, Hercog let an overhead bounce just in front of the net. She inexplicably shanked it long, proving to be a detrimental error: instead of getting back to match point, that miss only enabled Hercog to reach 30-30 and deuce.
Both players struggled to snatch momentum in a nervy tiebreaker. Hercog led 5-3 and stopped play at 6-6 to incorrectly challenge a call. Gauff twice overcooked cross-court backhands to miss set points, but brushed off the disappointment. On her third chance, engaging in an off-paced, slice-heavy exchange, Gauff finally punished Hercog’s passive play, coming in to put away a forehand drive volley to terminate a 32-shot rally and get the Centre Court crowd on its feet.
"People say Court 1's my court," Gauff said with a smile after the match. "Maybe Centre can be as well."
Gauff rose in confidence while Hercog struggled to find any in the early goings of the third set. Her forehand, which had put her in prime position to win the match earlier, was nowhere to be found. It took Gauff tightening up at 4-2 to open the door back up for Hercog, who settled in to break back and hold for 4-4.
Gauff shook it off, and the benefit of serving first under pressure paid dividends with successive love holds. Hercog, unable to up her first-serve percentage, was under fire, and on her first match point, Gauff shut the door to complete an improbable comeback.
Scenes from match point, from Centre Court to Henman Hill to Gauff's hometown of Delray Beach, Fla: