Serena Williams may have played her last game at Wimbledon after first round defeat

Coco Gauff squeaked through 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 against Romanian, Elena Gabriela Ruse

Out on Court Two, where the breeze was taking hats off, Coco Gauff, all flying skirt and legs and racket was immersed in a battle. Playing Romanian, Elena Gabriela Ruse, a barely known 54th ranked player, most expected a straight forward win. It was nothing of the sort.

Gauff squeaked through 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 at odds with herself and her game and under racing clouds and wind that threw the court into cloud and shadow, she kept inviting Ruse back into the match.

Gauff won 25 break points but bewilderingly converted just four. At 4-4 in the third set Ruse saved five break points. At 5-5 she saved service six times and then double faulted allowing Gauff serve for the match.

But for most of the people in the stadium court, the 18-year-old first round winner is not just another hopeful but the anointed spokeswoman for a generation. As she is American and black and on Tuesday opening her account on the same day as 40-year-old Serena Williams, Gauff’s impressive persona has preceded her.

As a 16-years-old she gave an unscripted speech against police brutality as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. In June, after reaching the French Open final she wrote on the camera: “Peace. End gun violence. Coco.”

“I don’t think I’m going to change the world. I’m not delusional. But I think it could change some people in the world,” she said.

When the Supreme Court in the USA overturned the landmark Roe v Wade case, which granted women in the US the right to terminate a pregnancy Gauff went on Twitter.

“Incredibly disappointed by the decision made. The sad part is this will not stop abortions from happening ... this will only increase illegal and unsafe abortions. It is a very sad day for our country and I cannot believe that once again history is repeating itself.”

Hers is a place in tennis not many players wish to occupy, except perhaps Williams, who has been there for 20 years with 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

Serena dropped her serve first match in the evening against Harmony Tan from France to go 0-2 down and while her effortless power and understandable reduced mobility had her in the first set, too many errors in her first competitive appearance in over a year frittered away points, with Tan taking it 7-5.

After a slight delay for the roof to close Williams sent a message with a 40-0 opening game in the second set. The still conditions suited the seven-time champion who rifled to a 5-0 lead, big serves a heavy contribution, before closing it out 6-1 to draw level in sets.

An early break in the third set in the illuminated arena and Williams hoped her serve would take her home. But it couldn’t as energy ebbed in the veteran and Tan went toe to toe inflating with confidence. But history was with her when she broke Tan for 5-4 to set up a scenario she could only have dreamed of, serving for the match.

Nerves galore from the best ever female tennis player, Tan broke back. Williams then saved a match point to spin it to a tie-break. A 4-0 lead there set up the former champion. It was hers to let go. She did as the match moved to a tie-break and Tan took it in over three hours. Williams may not be seen in Wimbledon again.

Gauff has yet to win a Grand Slam. But she’s not afraid of a fight. A milestone was ticked off in Paris when she made the French Open final, losing to the unstoppable world number one Iga Swiatek.

The top-seeded Pole won her opening match on Tuesday, beating Croatian qualifier Jana Fett 6-0, 6-3. Notably, the victory was Swiatek’s 36th in row, the longest winning streak on the women’s tour since 1997, when Martina Hingis won 37. Still the shadow of the Williams’ sisters remain around the courts.

“When I see Serena or see Venus, they seem like, I don’t know, the legends,” said Swiatek. “I don’t consider myself a legend. They seem like the ones. They’re the greatest of all time in tennis. But it’s amazing for me to have that kind of streak.”

As Gauff struggled with her game and her timing and the bounce on the lush second day grass, hers was a battle of wills not unlike that of British teenager Emma Raducanu in her first outing on Monday.

Ruse, with strong ground strokes, almost had the win of her life. But for all the grace, poise, braided hair to her hips and 11th seeding, there was also fire in Gauff’s athletic game as she covered the back court making almost impossible returns to stay in points.

Behind her occasionally melancholic expression Gauff also drilled down a 120mph serve to stay in touch. By the end Ruse had given all she had to give and it wasn’t quite enough, a fighting teen serving to love to end the match after 90 minutes.

“I know there’s countless people watching me,” said Gauff after the match. “I know I’m pretty active off the court regarding issues. It definitely does fuel me and motivates me to do even better. Today, even that helped a little bit just because people were saying, ‘you need to like shut up and focus on tennis, blah, blah, blah.’ Yeah, I like to win just to put that in their faces.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times