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Ed Curran: Rising star Gauff faces toughest test of her career against Halep

 

New era: Cori Gauff (centre) arrives for practice on middle Sunday at Wimbledon where she takes on Simona Halep
New era: Cori Gauff (centre) arrives for practice on middle Sunday at Wimbledon where she takes on Simona Halep
Simona Halep

By Ed Curran

After a week of brilliant sunshine and record crowds, the covers came out on the courts at Wimbledon on middle Sunday.

Just as it seemed the spectacular £70m new roof on the number one court might be virtually redundant this year, the warm weather broke and gave way to grey skies and rain, disrupting the practice schedule for many of the players preparing for their fourth round matches.

Amongst them, Wimbledon's new tennis star, Cori Gauff knew she faces the biggest test of her young life today on the Court One against the former World No 1, Simona Halep.

If a week is a long time in politics, it is also in the tennis career of 15-year-old Gauff.

Seven days ago, she was a rank outsider, virtually unknown. Today she enters the second week of Wimbledon as a potential new superstar playing in the last 16 of the world's most famous tennis championship.

Her three victories in the space of seven days have propelled the young American girl from anonymity to celebrity status.

She has eclipsed the performances of such greats as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. Granted all are also through to the last 16, but none have grabbed the sporting headlines as she has.

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Gauff's victory last Friday evening as dusk began to fall over the Centre Court, was a sight to behold.

It was the stuff of fairy tales which produced the most memorable moment of Wimbledon's opening week.

None of us who were there will forget her comeback from a set and five-two down and seemingly beaten, to bouncing back to win a nerve-tingling tie-break and take the final set 7-5.

An hour later, she was in the media interview room, reflecting on her victory in the most matter of fact, mature and composed manner.

What was striking was her swift response to questions as if she had been handling the media interest for years instead of only a few days.

She acknowledged that her victory over Venus Williams changed everything. "After. I played Venus everyone was screaming my name... it was pretty surreal how life changes in a matter of seconds."

This afternoon Cori Gauff faces Simona Halep, the dynamic 27-year-old Romanian, who is one of the favourites to win the ladies singles title. With so many of the Wimbledon seeds falling last week, whoever won today between Gauff and Halep, might sense a Wimbledon final in their grasp.

The prospect did not faze the teenager, who does not appear to carry any worry on her shoulders nor fear anyone she plays. "I'm young and have a lot of energy," she told us confidently and anyone who has watched her skip from one end of the court to the other, at the end of a gruelling game, can vouch for that.

Win or lose, she has written herself into the record books and history of Wimbledon already though not even the likes of the great Bjorn Borg, who won five titles, could get beyond the quarter-finals on his first attempt.

As for the rest in the women's draw, Serena Williams says she is improving with every game she plays. Playing with Sir Andy Murray in the mixed doubles has taken attention away from Williams' stealthy progress in the singles.

Though she was only seeded 11, and has played far fewer tournaments than the others, she exudes more confidence by the day. "My game is slowly coming together," she said at the weekend.

That, at 37, Williams remains the one they all have to beat, is testimony to how much Wimbledon and the Women's Tennis Association needs Cori Gauff to bring much-needed fresh appeal and more public interest in the game.

On the men's side, Wimbledon's first week showed up the paucity of potential champions to replace the aging guard of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who still look to dominate the week ahead.

One by one, the youngsters fell last week, their matches barren of the brilliance and poise of Federer, the power and toughness of Nadal, or the athletic accuracy of Djokovic.

The question is who can possibly challenge the big three and the answer looks hard to find amongst a motley last 16.

About the only players who looks capable of testing the champion Djokovic are the Frenchman, David Goffin or the Canadian Milos Raonic but even they are long shots to beat the Serbian in his current form.

And then there is the sublime Federer in the other half of the draw, expected to meet Rafael Nadal barring an unlikely upset along the way.

If both men play as they did last week, they should reach a semi-final on Friday which could provide the match of the championships just as these two great players have done so many times in the past at Wimbledon and other Grand Slams.

Behind the scenes in the tennis world, Federer and Djokovic are embroiled in another battle. Though the prize fund at this year's Wimbledon is a record £38m, uncertainty and unease pervades who controls men's tennis and how much players earn.

Recently, Djokovic chaired a seven-hour meeting of the ATP tour representatives and players which ended inconclusively. Federer and him appear to be on opposite sides in a debate about whether even more prize money should be given to players, especially to those who are beaten in the early rounds of tournaments.

Will the organisers of the main tennis tournaments cough up more money?

The debate goes on but next weekend, the winners of Wimbledon men's and ladies titles will each receive £2.35m and whoever cashes those cheques will hardly argue they have been short-changed.

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