Novak Djokovic was knocked out of the Monte Carlo Masters by an inspired Dominic Thiem in the third round on Thursday, with the Austrian fifth seed progressing to a possible quarter-final with Rafael Nadal.
Thiem, a two-time French Open semi-finalist, was the better player for much of the match and won 6-7 (2/7), 6-2, 6-3 despite a battling effort from Djokovic.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion has still not reached a quarter-final since Wimbledon last July after struggling with a right elbow injury.
Djokovic, 30, had said he was pain-free in Monte Carlo for the first time in two years, but Thiem backed up his French Open quarter-final win over the Serbian from last year with another impressive victory.
The 24-year-old will take on either world number one Nadal or Russian Karen Khachanov in Friday’s quarter-finals.
Thiem started strongly, but threw away three set points as Djokovic dug deep to claim the first set in a tie-break.
The Austrian recovered his composure midway through the second set, though, reeling off five consecutive games to extend the match.
He made the crucial breakthrough in game seven of the deciding set with a venomous backhand up the line, and closed it out with another break on his second match point.
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.
Point of the tournament so far❓
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) March 18, 2018
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.
Novak Djokovic eased many of his fans’ worries on Monday with a dominant display against fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic to reach the Monte Carlo Masters second round, dropping just one game in his 56-minute rout.
It was the first time Djokovic competed in a first round in Monte Carlo, without the benefit of having a bye, since he faced Roger Federer as an 18-year-old back in 2006 in his opening match there.
But judging from his straight-sets beatdown of Lajovic on Monday, Djokovic’s opener at the Monte Carlo Country Club was more of a bye and less of a contest.
The two-time Monte Carlo champion lives just down the road from the tournament venue and looked at home in his clash with his compatriot.
Here are the main takeaways from Djokovic’s victory…
A HAPPY HOUR
While Lajovic didn’t put up much of a fight – barring that final game of the match – Djokovic can certainly draw lots of confidence and positives from his opening match in Monaco, which was just his fourth victory of the season, and first since January.
Carrying a three-match losing streak into the tournament, Djokovic looked much better on court than he did in his opening round defeats in Indian Wells and Miami last month. He was hitting much cleaner, playing with a purpose instead of the confused and lost demeanour he had in the California desert four weeks ago, and delivered solid execution.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion did not face a break point in the first set, and saved all four Lajovic created in the second.
Djokovic’s footwork was on point, sliding all over the red clay of the Principality, and seamlessly switching from defence to offence. When he ventured to the net, he won all eight points up front, and changed the direction of the ball on demand, in ways only he can.
Djokovic fired 19 winners against 16 unforced errors. His backhand was responsible for nine winners and he managed three service winners – a decent sign for someone who had elbow surgery in February.
Oh hello there. 👋
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) April 16, 2018
The 30-year-old landed 62 per cent of his first serves in, won 82 per cent of the points on his first serve and 53 per cent of the points on his second.
Djokovic had the support of a full box courtside that included his former coach Marian Vajda, who is accompanying the Serb in Monte Carlo this week, with no commitment to future plans together as of yet. Djokovic spent 11 years working with Vajda and their reunion is already paying dividends.
NEXT STEP WON’T BE EASY
Djokovic will face far tougher opposition in the next round as he takes on in-form 21-year-old Borna Coric, who is enjoying a career-best season so far, with a semi-final showing in Indian Wells and a quarter-final appearance in Miami. Initially regarded as a mini Djokovic, Coric showed up on tour with a game that is very similar to the Serb’s, and he also shared his work ethic.
Coric is 15-6 this season, while Djokovic is a meager 4-3. The young Croat claimed his first Monte Carlo win on Monday 6-2, 6-3 over Julien Benneteau.
Djokovic is 1-0 head-to-head against Coric, with their sole meeting coming on clay in Madrid in 2016.
Clay season starting in Monte Carlo. Its good to be back on red clay in Europe. Are you ready? 💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼 pic.twitter.com/EeR6xcFAMN
— borna coric (@borna_coric) April 16, 2018