We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2019 as part of Tennis Channel's Home for the Holidays. Click here to read each selection.
Coco Gauff’s tightrope-walk win over Polona Hercog at Wimbledon wasn’t the best-played match of the year. By the end of their ultra-tense third-rounder on Centre Court, the American and the Slovenian were each suffering from a bad case of concrete elbow, as their swings grew tighter, and their moonballs climbed higher. Yet this may have been the most explosively exciting afternoon of the season, one that shook the century-old arena to its foundations, and revealed a potential new star for its second century.
That 15-year-old star made the most of her debut on the game’s biggest stage. Gauff came back from a set and 2-5 down, and saved two match points, one with a backhand slice that skidded off the line. She won the second-set tiebreaker on a 32-shot rally. She survived her own mini-meltdown in the third set, when she let a 4-1 lead slip away. When the match was over, the lanky Floridian jumped up and down and threw her arms in the air much the same way another lanky teenage Floridian, Venus Williams, had on the same court two decades ago. By that point, Gauff was the No. 1 trending item, worldwide, on Twitter, and Henman Hill sounded like it was hosting the Rolling Stones.
Gauff’s win was a reminder that tennis, which is now the province of grizzled, superstar 30-somethings, was once identified with the child prodigy more than any other sport. Tracy Austin, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Rafael Nadal: All of their careers were launched with major-title runs in their teens. More recently, in the era of Queen Serena and the ageless Big 3, the prodigy has become the exception rather than the rule. (Beckett had Waiting for Godot, tennis fans have Waiting for Zverev.) With this victory, Gauff returned Cinderella to Centre Court, and checked off all of the boxes on a future No. 1’s resume.
Hit a 108-M.P.H. second serve to save a break point? Check. Chase down any drop shot, and still have the poise and balance to drill a winner into the corner? Check. Modulate speeds, spins, and strategies depending on the opponent and the score? Check. Go about her business like the most seasoned and stoical of professionals? Check.
At Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as during her maiden title run in Linz, we also glimpsed Gauff’s easy smile, which comes in quick bursts, and heard about her teen life, from the B she got on a science test, to her excitement over seeing her press conferences online, to her precociously fatalistic philosophy:
“My motto is ‘just wing it,’” Gauff says. “We’re all going to die one day, I just want to make the most of it.”
Prodigies bring a pure, gravity-defying innocence to sports, one that tennis fans haven’t seen enough of in recent years. Gauff gave us a chance to feel it again.
“I just went for my shots,” she said after beating Hercog. It was nice to imagine, for one day at least, that it could all be that simple.