Gauff’s Wimbledon tale could have ended — but it didn’t

© Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — She has what all great athletes have, no matter their sport, no matter their age, the belief that even when even you’re making the bad shots, getting the bad breaks, somehow you’ll find a way to win — which is exactly what Cori Gauff did.

She was the story of this Wimbledon, the youngest entrant, a kid with a great touch and a great future. Yes, the past tense. Because she had lost seven straight games in her third-round match Friday and looked certain to lose the match.

The fairy tale would be over.

Except it isn’t.

Except, down 5-2 in the second set, and twice facing match point against Polonia Hercog, who if not a great tennis player at age 28 is certainly an experienced one, Gauff showed that at 15 she has the courage and mental toughness of a champion.

“I believed I could come back,” said Gauff. “I just had to wait for my shots.”

And come back she did, on the most famous stage the sport offers, Centre Court at Wimbledon, beating the bewildered Hercog, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5.

She hung in for 2 hours 47 minutes, fighting off sliced backhands and pressure, making it into the second week, which is a memorable step for any tennis player much less a teenager in her first Wimbledon.

“I am so impressed,” Tracy Austin, who at age 16 won the 1979 U.S. Open, said on the BBC broadcast. ”Cori came out on Centre Court and stayed so calm mentally.”

Part of it is because of her background. Her father, Corey, played football at Georgia State; her mother, Candi, was a swimmer at Florida State. Cori has the genes. And the dreams.

She has been around sports and competition all her young life. She grew up listening to coaches as well as music. She finds joy in playing the game, which of course is most important.

Her mom and dad were among the raucous crowd Friday, most of which, obviously enthralled by Gauff’s story — to get into the tournament she had to go through qualifying — was cheering for the American teen.

They also were there to watch the following match, the debut of Andy Murray and Serena Williams as a mixed doubles team, but the late finish of the Gauff-Hercog battle — the final shot, long, by Hercog came at 8:14 p.m. British summer time — forced officials to postpone that one.

“They were amazing,” said Gauff of the fans.

So was Gauff. “So mature,” said Austin. “She was smart enough to change her game.”

Hercog had been dictating play. Gauff looked helpless as Hercog won game after game, seven straight.

Then it turned. Gauff began to play her ground strokes. Hercog, the Slovenian, suddenly was the one in trouble. “Nerves,” said the great Martina Navratilova to the TV audience.

Gauff seemed to have them. Then Hercog may have had them.

”Sometimes not knowing what it’s all about,” Navratilova said, referring to Gauff’s youth, “can be a help.”

Hercog knew what was within her grasp. And why it slipped away.

‘’I think I was playing, like, really good tennis for the two sets,” she explained. “I had my chances. You know, it was millimeters. It was just not meant to be today. Yeah, that's it. Not much to say after, yeah, being, like, a millimeter away from winning.”

A millimeter or a mile, it’s the same thing, a miss, a chance not taken. That jumper that rims in basketball is no different than an air ball.

Gauff, also known as Coco, had made a total of only 18 unforced errors in her first two matches here, including the opener against Venus Williams, She had 43 against Hercog.

“I think I made more errors (Friday) because she was playing really well,” she explained. “I felt like I had to go bigger because she was hitting so many forehand winners. I knew that I had to hit bigger. I think I was trying to hit too big, to a point where I was missing a lot.”

Someone wondered if Gauff had become aware of her new status as the belle of the ball, in effect, a celebrity, and what sort of response there had been, such as wild messages.

“The most unexpected message I received — well, it wasn't really a message,” Gauff said. “Tina Knowles, Beyonce's mom, posted me on Instagram. I was, like, screaming.

“I don’t know. Like, I hope Beyonce saw that. I hope she told her daughter about me because I would love to go to a concert. A funny story, though. Actually my parents told me to babysit my brothers. They didn't tell me where they were going. Then I see on Facebook that they're at the Beyonce and Jay-Z concert. I was so mad. I told them I wanted to go.”

She had something else to do, like winning a match at Wimbledon.