LONDON, UK - Proving that age ain't nothing but a number in tennis, 15-year-old Cori Gauff and 31-year-old Giulia Gatto-Monticone will both make their Wimbledon debuts after victories in the final qualifying round in Roehampton today - and have been drawn to face Venus and Serena Williams respectively in the first round.
The prodigious Gauff became the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon in the Open Era, and the first 15-year-old to compete in the main draw of The Championships since wildcard Laura Robson in 2009, after saving her most dominant performance for the most important round to defeat No.19 seed Greet Minnen 6-1, 6-1 in just 55 minutes. It was perhaps Gauff's most impressive win of the week, given No.1 seed Aliona Bolsova's lack of grass experience: Minnen is one of the most improved players of this year, having raised her ranking nearly 200 places since the end of 2018.
Gauff, who won the Grade 1 junior event on the same Roehampton grounds last year - "I'm undefeated on these courts!" she pointed out gleefully - was once again confident beyond her years afterwards. "I can do anything I put my mind to," she pronounced as her takeaway from the week. "When I'm calm and positive I'm more likely to get the result I want - and the result doesn't mean win or lose, it's the result as in how I played." The American also credited coach Jean-Christophe Faurel for some rigorous pre-grass work on her slice and her net game, admitting: "I hate doing volley drills - I prefer to bang from the baseline - but I'm happy he made me do all those weird drills." Asked to name her dream first-round opponent after her win, Gauff responded that it would be "amazing" to play either Williams sister - and the following day, the draw gods granted the teenager's wishes, pairing her with Venus in her main draw opener.
Gatto-Monticone played her first professional match in 2002, a full two years before Gauff was born, but 17 years of toil have finally been paying off for the Italian this year. At Roland Garros last month, she qualified to become the oldest Grand Slam debutante since a 43-year-old Renée Richards at the 1977 US Open - and she has immediately backed it up in style on grass, countering Oceane Dodin's power with finesse and point construction from a set and 1-4 down to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-1. "It's a dream come true!" she gasped afterwards.
The World No.162, who had never even played Wimbledon qualifying before, credits a change in her mindset two years ago with her late surge. Gatto-Monticone said that the realisation that she was "not so young anymore" caused her to throw the kitchen sink at her career: "I started to think better, to do martial arts, mindfulness, to make physical changes in my rapidity." Though she admits that at various points in the past two decades she had lost her self-belief, it was Gatto-Monticone's "total passion" for the sport that kept her going - and still drives her improvements.
Elsewhere, Lesley Kerkhove ended wildcard Sabine Lisicki's hopes of a fairytale run into the main draw. The 2013 runner-up had scored consecutive wins for the first time since November to reach the third round, and after whitewashing Kerkhove in a 22-minute first set appeared to be well on her way back into a tournament that has given her some of the fondest memories of her career. The Dutchwoman had other ideas, though, and outgritted Lisicki 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 to take ownership of her own fairytale narrative: Kerkhove, who had never won a match in four previous appearances in Wimbledon qualifying, will now make her SW19 debut in the main draw.
Two players who have relied on grit to get this far found the final hurdle to be somewhat smoother sailing. No.17 seed and former World No.58 Beatriz Haddad Maia had needed to come from a set down to defeat both Paula Ormaechea and Anna Zaja, but said that those tight contests had merely enabled her "to feel more confident in tough moments". One of those came when No.14 seed Olga Danilovic threatened a dramatic comeback by pulling back from 1-4 to 4-4 in the second set, but the Brazilian - still on the comeback trail from back surgery a year ago - said: "I was very calm in my mind and that was the key." Hitting out freely with her powerful left-handed forehand, Haddad Maia coolly closed out a 6-4, 6-4 win.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Youth Olympic Games gold medallist Kaja Juvan had needed a total of three hours and 52 minutes to see off Valentini Grammatikopoulou and Basak Eraydin - but just 53 minutes to upset No.6 seed Christina McHale 6-2, 6-1. Fellow teenager Catherine McNally will also play her first Wimbledon main draw after holding firm during a dramatic climax to convert her seventh match point and defeat Jana Cepelova 6-4, 6-3.
Unlike McNally's previous opponents, the Slovak - who has scored upsets of both Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza at Wimbledon in the past - was not discomfited by the 17-year-old's use of slice, often responding with biting spin of her own. But McNally proved more accurate when hitting through her forehand to take control, and took advantage of a spate of double faults that ultimately sunk Cepelova's hopes of a comeback.
Grand Slam qualifying debutante Varvara Flink has become a Grand Slam main draw debutante on her first go, essaying a remarkable comeback to upset No.8 seed Elena Rybakina 6-3, 4-6, 8-6 in the day's only overtime match. The 19-year-old Kazakh served for the match twice at 5-4 and 6-5 in the decider, but both times her aim deserted her - and Flink, bravely charging the net to rush Rybakina further, found that her boldness ultimately paid off with victory after two hours and 12 minutes. Belgian No.12 seed Ysaline Bonaventure also won a tight and emotionally wrought contest, delivering a fiery performance and impressive power to defeat Dutch No.26 seed Arantxa Rus.
The remaining qualifiers are No.22 seed Paula Badosa, No.24 seed Ana Bogdan, No.29 seed Tereza Martincova, Kristie Ahn, Arina Rodionova, Elena-Gabriela Ruse and Yanina Wickmayer. All will be placed in the main draw at tomorrow's 10am ceremony.