LONDON, Great Britain -- The outstanding Wimbledon run of 15-year-old American qualifier Cori “Coco” Gauff reached new heights on Centre Court on Friday, as the teenage sensation came back from a 6-3, 5-2 deficit and saved two match points in the process to overcome Slovenia’s Polona Hercog, 3-6, 7-6(7), 7-5, and reach the fourth round of her maiden Grand Slam main draw.
"When [the last shot] was going overhead, I was like, 'Please go out, please,'" Gauff said in her post-match press conference. "Then after, when I was jumping, I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe it. It's been one long match, it's finally over!'"
Gauff, the youngest Wimbledon qualifier in the Open Era and the first 15-year-old to contest the main draw of the grass-court Grand Slam in a decade, dropped her first set in her three qualifying and three main-draw matches of the event, but steered her way back from the precipice to outlast World No.60 Hercog in two hours and 46 minutes of play.
"When I was walking on the court, I kind of wasn't nervous, but I was just like, 'Wow, I'm really on Centre Court, one of the most sacred courts in the world,'" said Gauff. "When I was down 5-2, I was just like, I can fight back. Just need to hold serve, break, then we'll see what happens from there."
After dropping the first set, Gauff exhibited tremendous grit to pull out two challenging sets to get the win, and was more adept than her opponent at net during the match, winning 61 percent of points in the forecourt, to Hercog's 47 percent.
"Even when I was down match point, the people in the crowd were behind me every step of the way," Gauff continued. "That's something I really appreciated during the match.
"I don't know, it's just crazy. I remember before I played Venus [Williams], as you know, when you walk to leave the practice courts, there are people waiting. One little kid asked me for a picture. Then after the next day, after I played Venus, everybody was screaming my name. It was pretty surreal how life changes in a matter of seconds."
Gauff will attempt to keep her tremendous tournament going in Monday’s fourth round when she faces a Top 10 player for the very first time: former World No.1 Simona Halep. Halep, seeded 7th this week, dispatched another former World No.1, Victoria Azarenka, to reach the fourth round and queue up a clash with Gauff.
"I watch her a lot obviously," Gauff noted. "I've never hit with her or anything or practiced with her. I don't know how the ball would feel when I actually play, but I'm really familiar how she plays just from watching her a lot."
The match commenced with both players mixing deft slices in with their powerful serves and forehands, and they stayed on equal footing through 3-3. It was Hercog, though, who took control of the set in that game, claiming the first break of the tilt by cracking open a forehand crosscourt rally with a thundering down-the-line forehand to go up 4-3.
Hercog picked up steam after converting that opportunity, knocking off three huge service points in a row to grab a love service hold for 5-3. Gauff then faltered while serving to stay in the set, hitting three double faults in the following game to drop serve at love and cede a one-set lead to the Slovene.
Hercog continued to hold the momentum well into the second set. The Slovene garnered an early break to lead 2-0, and she had no trouble holding in her next three service games as she notched a 5-2 lead and was on the brink of victory, having not lost a point on first serve up to that moment.
Gauff then had to fend off a match point, which she did with a stunning backhand slice winner that landed square on the sideline, before holding for 5-3. Serving for the match, Hercog held a second match point, but double faulted it away. Suddenly, errors began to flow from the forehand of Hercog, and she dropped serve for the first time in the match.
A rejuvenated Gauff was back on serve and she started to find her rhythm while Hercog floundered. The young American grinded her way through a tough service game to hold for 6-6 and move into her first tiebreak of the tournament.
The players sliced and diced their way through the breaker, and over half of the points went to the returner as they pulled to a 7-7 deadlock. Gauff then claimed a crucial point by returning an attempted lob by Hercog, which the Slovene could not reply to successfully, firing her shot into the net. Gauff then ended a rally with a winning overhead, and she was all the way back into the match.
As the combatants moved into the decider, it was Gauff who held onto the momentum, earning the first break after a wide forehand by Hercog. Gauff was rolling on serve by this point, and consolidated for 4-1 with an easy hold.
But the strong Slovene was not yet finished, and after a love hold of her own, Hercog stayed steely to claw back on serve at 4-3. Gauff recovered to hold at love to reach 5-4, but Hercog continued to stay with the American, polishing off a tight service game with an ace to counter for 5-5.
Gauff, though, moved ahead once more, with another dominant hold for 6-5. Hercog reached game point in the next game, but the Slovene hit forehand miscues in back-to-back points to give Gauff her first match point. There, a rally ended with Hercog firing a lob long, and the jubilant 15-year-old moved into the second week of Wimbledon on her very first try.