For 30 minutes or so on Monday, veteran champion Simona Halep felt the pressure of facing a 15-year-old in the round of 16 at Wimbledon. But the former world No. 1 dug in, hit out and soon ended the dream debut of transcendent qualifier Cori Gauff with a 6-3, 6-3 victory.
"In my opinion, every tournament is an opportunity for everybody—for me also. I had good chance also in French Open. I didn't get it. So now it's a new challenge," said Halep. "I'm happy with the way I'm playing here on grass. I improved a lot. The most important thing is that I'm positive and confident when I step on the court."
After trading early breaks, Halep soon tightened up by hitting three successive double faults, matching her total through her first three matches this fortnight. Facing two break points at 1-2, the 2018 French Open champion would regroup with deep hitting and confident rallying to hold. It was essentially the turning point of the match.
In the ensuing game, a questionable decision by chair umpire James Keothavong to replay a corrected call off a Gauff cross-court backhand that appeared out of Halep’s reach kept the score at deuce. Gauff then hit two loose errors to drop serve and understandably showed her frustration by punching her racquet.
Halep still showed signs of tightness on serve, but maintained her composure to close out the first set. Though she relinquished an early break lead in the second set, Halep stayed the course, breaking Gauff for 4-2. Gauff, who struggled with stomach pain and took pain killers, made one last stand, saving two match points—one with a remarkable pick-up volley—to force Halep to finish the match on her racquet.
The Romanian is through to the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the third time in four years, though she is looking to reach the semifinals for the first time since 2014, when she fell to Eugenie Bouchard. Halep is bidding to win her first title of 2019 and will next take on Shuai Zhang, who defeated Dayana Yastremska, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2. Zhang leads Halep 2-1 in their head-to-head series, winning their past two encounters in 2016.
"I don't want to think about the past that much. I'm different and I'm feeling different on court," Halep said. "This is what matters. Tomorrow I will fight for my match."
For the 313th-ranked Gauff, the run will propel her inside the WTA's Top 150. Beginning in her qualifying opener against Aliona Bolsova, Gauff picked up her first of three Top 100 wins at the London major, later defeating idol Venus Williams in the first round and saving two match points to overcome Polona Hercog in the third round.
"I learned a lot. I learned how to play in front of a big crowd. I learned what it was like to be under pressure. I learned a lot and I'm really thankful for this experience," Gauff reflected. "I hope [fans] learned that I'm a fighter. I'll never give up. I hope they learned from me that anything is possible if you work hard and just continue to dream big."
Gauff will finish up two weeks of schoolwork before focusing on the US hard-court swing.