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Gauff stardust opens up a bright new era for women's game

 

Rising star: Cori Gauff holds back tears of joy after victory
Rising star: Cori Gauff holds back tears of joy after victory

By Tom Kershaw

If this is where legacies can end, a new era was born in the sun-baked twilight hours on Court One on Monday.

Moments ascribed as changing of the torches, batons or any other glorified stick are often done so gratuitously.

But as 15-year-old Cori Gauff pressed the butt of her racket into her forehead and did everything to stifle the tears, an unmistakable moment of shift and emotion had been realised. This was not a sweeping change in the tennis landscape, not representative of an overthrowing of an enduring old guard, but a feat of lone brilliance in achieving a feat rarely witnessed.

Few teenagers have the maturity or audacity to immediately challenge, rather than revere, their rivals. But when Gauff became the youngest player to reach this year's singles draw, completing her science exam at 11pm last Wednesday before winning her final qualifying match the following morning, she was disarmingly transparent in her desire to be drawn against either of the Williams sisters.

When adversity threatened in the second set, and the entire arena fizzed with anticipation of a great victory or worse collapse, Gauff's relentless serve deserted her, and suddenly what had seemed so fluid - almost too perfect - became a struggle that was touchingly real.

She gifted two double faults to Williams, relinquished her break of serve and, but for a second, the task at hand seemed grave; a glimpse into the fear of standing on the verge of something astonishing.

And yet, just like that, Gauff turned to face the back of the court, cycled through composing tics, glanced at her mother and father in the box above, and steel usurped humanity.

The flaws brought her victory back from fiction. Some will rightly say this was as much about hunger as talent; that Williams was tired and too ready to embrace the sword of time; but this victory was just as impressive in how Gauff handled the bewildering spotlight of the Grand Slam stage, as her still raw and unrefined ability.

It took her four match points to finally crack Williams' late resolve. It was by no means a perfect performance. There were flinching serves and framed groundstrokes, but then what dream is supposed to be faultless? It's easy to forget that this most staggering of welcomes to the wider audience is in fact barely the beginning.

Although they could never have predicted its theatre, those close to Gauff have always expected this brand success. Aged 13, she reached the final of the Junior US Open - the youngest ever to do so. The following year, she won the Junior French Open and was taken under the umbrella of Roger Federer's management company. Within minutes of leaving the court, Patrick McEnroe hailed her as a future World No.1, while Tracy Austin described her as being "raised for greatness".

How do you maintain focus on a horizon that's limitless? How do you stay grounded when your aim is to transcend to being, as Gauff reiterated in her post-match press conference, "the greatest of all time"?

The measure with which Gauff reacted to her victory told of someone who will not be caught up in ecstasy's hangover. Nothing is beyond touching distance except a return to normality.

Wimbledon watched on as the past made way for the present, with eyes already locked to the future.

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