Wimbledon has officially gone loco for Coco.
On an evening of churning Centre Court drama, Cori Gauff - nicknamed Coco, as she has come to be known to everyone in the tennis world and beyond - confirmed herself as quite possibly the most nerveless 15-year-old on the planet.
Saving two match points, the teenager returned from the ragged edge of defeat at Wimbledon last night to secure an astounding three-set victory over Slovenia's Polona Hercog, one that transformed her from prodigy to bona fide superstar.
What, ultimately, is talent without tenacity?
Gauff had shown to everybody here, through her straight-sets wins over Venus Williams and Magdalena Rybarikova, that she had natural gifts in abundance, but in this extraordinary fight with Hercog she confirmed that she also had the resilience.
Even when spectators on Centre Court had all but given up on her hopes, she rebounded out of nowhere, emerging on top from a gripping tie-break to take the contest into a third hour.
And in the longest match of her life, it was she who stood tallest.Until then, the impression was that Gauff had at last been overpowered, as Hercog sauntered out to a 6-3, 5-2 lead. Gauff was clearly apprehensive on her Centre Court debut, packing three double-faults into one game to surrender the first set. But the tale, Gauff decided, needed to have a more rousing ending than this. She had travelled too far, won too many admirers, to slip out of the tournament tamely.
Just when the crowd had settled into a mood of resignation, she found her best form, saving Hercog's first match point with the deftest backhand slice. The Slovenian hardly needed reminding she was struggling for the crowd's affections, when her next netted forehand drew raucous cheers.
Gauff had forced her to try to serve this out, and the 28-year-old, seeking a first fourth-round appearance at a major, folded under the strain. No sooner had she brought up a second chance to wrap it all up with an ace than she double-faulted, before spraying a forehand long. It was becoming rowdy in the debentures, as well-watered patrons willed Gauff towards a memorable encore. "Pressure is a privilege," yelled one.
Evidently, the message reached her, as she harried Hercog into conceding the precious break. Suddenly, it was the more experienced player who looked vulnerable, sending a smash wildly long when she had seemed certain to win the point. Anxiety engulfed her, just as Gauff discovered her rhythm.
A tie-break was the only proper way to defuse the tension, and it was an instant minor classic. A mere 33 minutes after she had stared down the barrel at match point down, Gauff had a set point herself, squandering it with an overhit backhand. At the second time of asking, on her own racket, she made almost a carbon-copy mistake. But given a third chance, she did not wobble, moving Hercog around with brilliant backhands, before finally moving in for the kill with a brave forehand winner. She was ecstatic, naturally, but not half as much as her father, Corey, placing a foot on the barrier of the players' box and punching the air.Mother Candi (below) could scarcely watch, sitting with her head bowed. Briefly, it appeared too much even for Hercog, too, who lay on the ground while her trainer helped her with stretches.
She then left the court for a medical time-out so long that Gauff had to slip on a jacket to stave off so long.The delay was hardly ideal, coming when she carried all the momentum.
At over 1½ hours, this was already one of the longest matches in which Gauff, only allowed to enter 10 tournaments between her 15th and 16th birthdays, had been involved. But she headed out into uncharted territory with conviction, scampering to the net and putting away the volley that secured her first service hold of the decider.Faced with the flagging Hercog, she could scent blood, never more so than when a loose forehand put her 3-1 in front, her first lead since the opening game.
Hercog, stricken by nerves, was barely placing her feet, while Gauff was now nimbly covering every inch of grass.The undulations of this match were endless, and Hercog ensured one last twist, lashing a forehand winner and unsettling Gauff enough to take the break back. Still, serving first, Gauff was the one to dictate terms. Hercog, scrambling just to hold serve, pitched a routine volley into the net at 5-4 down, before contriving an escape with an ace. She could not toil her way out again, though, with Gauff turning the screw, rushing the net, and forcing Hercog to try an ambitious lob that landed long. She bounced in euphoria, recognising, along with everybody else, that this was a Wimbledon win for the ages