15-year-old Cori Gauff into Wimbledon last 16 after fightback against Polona Hercog

Cori Gauffplays a smash during her win over Polona Hercog. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA WireCori Gauffplays a smash during her win over Polona Hercog. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Cori Gauffplays a smash during her win over Polona Hercog. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
She couldn’t do it again, could she? Cori “Coco” Gauff couldn’t shrug off any Grand Slam nerves, teenage callowness and the well-honed game of another opponent much older than her and continue the great fairytale of Wimbledon?

She could do better than that. She could give Polona Hercog a set and 5-2 of a start. She could let her have one match point, then another. Then – retrieving from the litter bin a storyline that Hans Christian Andersen would have rejected for being just too ludicrous – she won the match.

The teen sensation had been progressing from round to round like some 15-year-olds pick up a new hairstyle or pop group or bedroom colour scheme only to drop them and quickly move on to the next one.

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But last night, amid a crescendo of protective sighs from the Centre Court, Gauff seemed to be heading out of the championships as Hercog, the heavily-tattooed Slovenian, pictured, flexed muscles that seemed just too powerful for her.

And then the match turned – sensationally. After two hours and 47 minutes – a marathon which bumped Andy Murray and Serena Williams into today – a lob from Hercog went long and Centre went loco for Coco. She said: “When the ball was going overhead I was like: ‘Please go out, please.’ Then after when I was jumping, wow, I couldn’t believe the match was over and I’d done it.”

Told she’d earned the best part of $200,000 for the 3-6, 7-6 (9-7), 7-5 victory Gauff added: “Okay, that’s cool.” What would she spend it on? “I mean, not a car because I can’t drive. I don’t know - I hate spending money, to be honest, but maybe some hoodies.”

Gauff will next play Simona Halep in the fourth round on what’s called Manic Monday but this was her Fanciful, Far-Fetched, Fantastical Friday.

It was a chapter of the fairytale with a big, bad wolf. Hercog is inked all the way up and down her hammer of a right arm and the skull that forms the display’s centrepiece would scare the kids, some not much younger than Gauff. Perhaps out of respect for Wimbledon’s dress code this was out of sight under a white sleeve. But there was no such decorum from her manager-husband, Zeljko Krajan, who flaunted a snarling wolf from her box as he urged Gauff to spoil the sweet story.

Gauff didn’t seem alarmed but there was a reticence not seen before, a reluctance to swish her racket, and maybe some clear evidence at last that she is indeed just 15 and can suffer from nerves like everyone else in these championships. Hercog, 13 years her senior, was a tougher nut with a thumping serve and forehand and her forceful play put Gauff on the back foot, the young American suddenly much more conservative with her shots.

Unlike the previously vanquished, she was staying on the baseline and so wasn’t being easily passed. Hercog threatened the Gauff serve and in the seventh game broke it. Jittery during a long rally, Gauff wouldn’t risk one of those already-famous flashing drives to settle it. Ultimately she paid the price, double-faulting twice to lose the set.

Gauff hadn’t given up one before, not even in qualifying – and she was the youngest ever to come through that route in the Open era. So here was a real test. She looked downcast. The crowd, loving the narrative thus far, tried to lift the prodigy but the fizz seemed to have gone and another break for Hercog arrived quickly in the second set.

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Previously Gauff had seized the initiative in matches and then not let it go. Here it was Hercog dictating the tempo, luring the younger girl into a scenario which might have been called “Death By a Thousand Slices”, not Gauff’s kind of thing. “I just thought: ‘I can’t keep pushing,’” she said. Was she nervous? “I kind of wasn’t, but I was like: ‘Wow, I’m really on Centre Court.’ But when I was down 5-2 I said to myself: ‘I can fight back.’ I just needed to hold my serve, break, then we could see what happened from there.”

What happened will live long in the memory, also unfortunately for Hercog. She probably couldn’t believe the change of fortunes. Elsewhere among her body art there’s the slogan: “Pain doesn’t kill me, I kill the pain.” Now she needed the trainer. Ice was rubbed on her thighs at change-of-ends but it was Gauff who was keeping coolest. “I knew I could go longer,” she said. “I saw her getting the physio and I knew she would get tired.”

Hercog did rally once more, rubbing out Gauff’s 4-1 lead in the final set and it seesawed wildly in the closing games before Gauff’s jump for joy. What tales she’ll have to tell when she gets back to school. The best of them thus far? “That Tina Knowles, Beyonce’s mum, posted me on Instagram.”

So is Coco really Destiny’s Child? The beaten Hercog thinks she just could be. “She’s very young, very fit, she has a very big future, I think.”