Borna Coric eyeing progress with new A-list team, faces Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo second round

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On the rise: Borna Coric.

When a 17-year-old Borna Coric defeated Rafael Nadal en route to the Basel semi-finals in 2014, the tennis world perked up and took notice.

A few months later, Coric upset Andy Murray on his way to the last-four in Dubai and by July 2015, he was 18 years old and ranked No. 33 in the world.

The expectations heightened, comparisons to Novak Djokovic poured in, and Coric was seen as one of the most promising teenagers tipped to rule the tour in the future. His work ethic was believed to be second to none, and he had a seriousness to him rarely seen in teens his age.

But instead of continuing to move in that upward direction, Coric’s progress plateaued and other ‘NextGen’ players passed him by. A year ago, he dipped to as low as 79 in the world.

At the end of last season, the Croat decided to do something drastic about it.

A complete overhaul of his team saw him hire ex-world No. 3 and current coach of Roger Federer, Ivan Ljubicic, as his manager. He also joined forces with Milos Raonic’s former coach Riccardo Piatti and hired Kristijan Schneider as a second coach, Dalibor Sirola as his fitness coach and Claudio Zimaglia as his physio.

Just a couple of months into the 2018 season the partnership with the new team started to pay dividends.

After a disappointing opening round exit at the Australian Open in January, Coric began to turn things around. He claimed two important wins for Croatia against Canada in Davis Cup over Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil before making the quarter-finals in Dubai, where he lost to eventual champion Roberto Bautista Agut.

Then March Madness kicked in and Coric reached the semis in Indian Wells, where he almost defeated Federer, then made it to the quarters in Miami.

His reward was a place in the world’s top-30 for the first time in his career but Coric’s progress is much more than a move up in the rankings.

He has emerged from the past three seasons as a mature 21-year-old who speaks with so much clarity about where things went wrong for him, and how he should approach the upcoming stretch of his career.

“I had very big success when I was very, very young. But also at that time, I was okay No. 33 or something like that but my game level was not there,” Coric told reporters in Indian Wells last month.

“If I see myself now and when I was 18 and 33 in the world, you can’t compare the two players, I’m a much better player now.

“Back then, it was my first year on the tour, no one knew me, I was the new guy. I was fighting a lot, I was lucky in some tournaments, because Rafa, he was semi-injured (in Basel), then in Dubai I got in as a lucky loser, Marcos (Baghdatis) retired in the tiebreak, Andy (Murray) played probably the worst match of his life, it all kind of… I was really lucky and of course I took my chances, I take the credit as well, it’s not like I was only lucky. But if you compare the two players, there is no comparison. It’s a completely different player.

“It was a good thing in some ways but in other ways it was not good because I stopped improving, I just thought it’s going to go by itself and I’m going to become better and better but it’s not.

“If you stop working, if you’re not working on the right things, I was playing too many tournaments, I was focusing too much on the ranking, not on improving. It comes to the point where you’re going to start dropping, you can’t always go up just because you’re lucky or something.”

Coric realised he needed to make some serious changes to his team at the end of the 2017 season because he felt he was “stagnating”. He spent the offseason at Piatti’s academy in Bordighera and he has the Italian in his corner this week in Monte Carlo where Coric faces Djokovic in the second round on Wednesday.

“I just felt like I needed a change, completely change, not only the coach but the manager and the fitness coach and the physio, a completely different view to the tennis, how we’re going to work, a different approach,” explains Coric.

The Zagreb native, who is a resident in Dubai, believes there is a collaborative environment in the team and even though Piatti is technically the head coach, everyone has a say when it comes to any decision.

“That’s why I love the new team, I’m not saying I’m always right, but I want to speak and I want to know, okay if you want to do something different than me, which is perfectly fine, but just to explain and just to talk, so that’s how we work,” says Coric.

Djokovic leads Coric 1-0 head-to-head with their sole previous meeting coming on clay in Madrid two years ago.

They come into the match in completely different positions with Djokovic still finding his way back from an elbow injury that required surgery in February and has limited him to playing just seven matches in 2018, while Coric is 15-6 this season and is brimming with confidence from his March exploits.

Still Coric isn’t taking anything for granted and knows that the key is to continue to work hard and improve his level.

“There is no magic light, nothing is going to turn. Okay I’m playing well now but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be in the top-10 in a few months,” he says.

“We need to work so that in two, three, four years I can become a top-10 tennis player, that’s my goal. We are a team, we really get along, no one is trying to be the boss. We always talk, everyday, all together, about today, about the long-term plan… that’s why it’s working very good for now.”

The backhand has always been Coric’s stronger shot, even though he feels it broke down a bit last season. He feels he is playing more aggressively and closer to the baseline and says his forehand is always a work in progress.

“It’s been my main focus my whole life pretty much, it’s not a secret,” he says of his forehand.

“Of course there are matches where I’m happy with it, there are matches where I’m missing it maybe too much or I’m not going for it. I did improve it for sure but I don’t see this as a final.”

Ljubicic, who coaches Federer but manages players like Coric and Tomas Berdych, touches base with his compatriot constantly but doesn’t interfere with Piatti’s coaching duties.

“He’s my manager obviously. He kind of watches on everything from a different angle and from time to time gives me opinions and checks that I’m on the right path,” Coric said of Ljubicic’s role in his team.

“We see each other often when I’m back in Monte Carlo or Bordighera. We speak every day, a lot – not so much about technique and tactics but other stuff like my approach to the game and stuff like that.”

With an A-list team in corner, and a newfound perspective and maturity, can Coric stop Djokovic on the clay of Monte Carlo on Wednesday? It certainly won’t be a cakewalk for the 12-time Grand Slam champion.

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