Less than years ago, a 17-year-old Borna Coric beat Rafael Nadal in straight sets in Basel en route to the semi-finals. The Croat was ranked No124 at the time.
Eight months later, Coric cracked the top 40 for the first time after reaching the third round of Roland Garros on his main draw debut. Early last year, he shocked Andy Murray in Dubai, wowing the crowd with a dominant display of tennis.
Of all the players from the so-called ‘NextGen’ group, Coric possibly showed the most promise early on, and even though Nick Kyrgios created the biggest buzz with his Grand Slam results, it was the Croat who seemed the more level-headed. His discipline got people to draw comparisons between Coric and one Novak Djokovic, who himself said that he saw himself in the young talent.
But then the results stopped coming, injury struck, and Coric ended his 2016 on the operating table, having knee surgery. He slipped to 79 in the world last April and watched his ‘NextGen’ peers like Alexander Zverev or Karen Khachanov pass him by, and move up the rankings.
“I think it’s impossible, in life, in tennis, in any job, to go only up,” Coric, who plays his Roland Garros second round on Tuesday against Steve Johnson, told Sport360.
“Definitely I didn’t do as well as I wanted to but I think it’s also because I got used to playing well, at a very high level very young and then to maintain that is very tough.
“If I hadn’t played so good then what I’m doing now would be amazing. And like this is just okay. But it’s normal. I’m just used to it, I think I’m playing better every day. I’m just really working on the stuff I need to work on and I think it’s going to come.”
Just when Coric was hitting a low rankings-wise, the 20-year-old Dubai resident caught fire. He claimed his first ATP title in Marrakech in April – the same week he slipped to 79 in the charts.
“Of course, I think, every player wants it to happen sooner or later,” he said of winning his first trophy.
“I had played two finals and I didn’t play good in those finals. I really wanted it to happen so I can get it off my back but at the same time I knew it was going to happen sooner or later if I’m going to play good.
“To be honest it happened a little bit sooner than I expected because I hadn’t played very well at the beginning of the season, but that’s tennis.”
Coric had another inspired week in Madrid, where he started by losing in the qualifying rounds but ended up reaching the quarter-finals as a lucky loser, with a huge win over the top-ranked Murray – the second of his career over the Scot – en route.
“I know that when I play my best tennis that I can play with those guys, I don’t know if I can beat them obviously but I know that I can play with them,” Coric said in Paris this week. “But I need to play at my highest level. Obviously the win (over Murray) helped me from a ranking perspective, also for my confidence. It gave me a lot of stuff and obviously I can go a little bit more relaxed now going into the tournaments.”
One change Coric made at the end of last season was hire a new coach – his fellow Croat Ivica Ancic, who is the brother and ex-coach of former world No7 Mario Ancic.
The partnership is already paying dividends as Coric finds himself back in the top 40 and playing the kind of tennis that earned him a lot of hype a couple of years ago.
“I actually knew him since I was 11 years old when I was doing some commercial with his brother,” Coric said of Ivica Ancic. “And then I hadn’t seen him for a while but I always had him in my mind as my coach and then we had the opportunity both of us, we were free, so we took it.
“We have a very similar mentality and character. We understand each other very well. He understands me, my needs in every aspect of life and I think it’s good also that we’re from the same country. We are a very special country, we have a bit of a different mentality, we’re a bit crazy, and it’s good that he is the same because he understands me. It’s a bit easier that way.”
Asked to elaborate on why he thinks Croats are “a bit crazy”, Coric added: “I think we have just different mentality. We can go up and down in the head, we are very emotional, we take things really personally.”
Coric does not come off as someone who is too emotional. He tends to convey the persona of someone who is in control, and often seems like he is more mature than his age.
“He’s still young but he thinks a lot about his tennis, and the way he communicates – he’s not a kid, he thinks a lot about himself, what he did in a match, what he should do,” says his coach Ancic.
“He has this self-control and also to be a good player, you have to teach yourself during the match, during the practice, so he’s very aware of what he’s doing, and that’s a very positive sign, especially for me as a coach, to work with this kind of player.”
Drawing comparisons with stars of the game often has a negative impact on young prospects coming up. Grigor Dimitrov suffered from the Roger Federer comparisons many years ago and the same could have happened with Coric. But he says it never weighed down on him.
“I never felt the pressure with that. People are going to say what they’re going to say. They’re going to compare me to someone, even if there is no reason to compare us. Because I hadn’t won a single tournament back then and they’re comparing me to him (Djokovic), and he won I don’t know how many, so it wasn’t in my opinion a good comparison. Even though we’re playing similar tennis, but still it’s a long way up to there,” explains Coric.
Perhaps the Djokovic references were not warranted, but was it tough witnessing the success of his peers like Zverev and seeing them achieve feats he has yet to achieve?
“There are a couple of guys doing really well, like Zverev, Khachanov… I have nothing against it, I have my career, I have my path and if they’re doing better than me that means they’re training more, they’re doing something better than me and I’m fine with that. I’m not happy of course – I want to be the best, I think that’s normal, but at the same time if I’m not the best, that’s life,” he concedes.
Burnout is a common problem among young players, and we’ve seen how overplaying affected Dominic Thiem next year. Coric is determined to get more selective with his schedule moving forward.
He says: “Definitely I’ve played a little bit too many tournaments this year. We just talked about it in Madrid, me and my team, we thought that in the second part of the year we’re going to play a bit less, we’re going to prepare better for tournaments, that’s the plan for sure.
“I was thinking how I was always chasing the points, because my ranking was not good, so it’s tough to go for the practice week when you’re ranking is 80 and you want to be around 40, then it’s not easy to say I’m going to cancel maybe Rome or I don’t know – it’s not easy because you need the points.
“But now I’ve played three or four good tournaments which gave me a lot of points and now I’m not under pressure for my ranking because I don’t have to defend anything after this.”