By John Delong
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (June 27, 2017) -- Borna Coric has been one of the faces of the ATP World Tour’s #NextGen campaign ever since he burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old and cracked the Top 100 in the fall of 2014.
Now a grizzled veteran at age 20, Coric continues to reach new heights and reaffirm himself as one of the fastest-rising young stars in professional tennis.
The Croatian won his first ATP World Tour title earlier this year in Marrakech and is comfortably in the Top 50 in the latest rankings at No. 42, despite missing three months to undergo surgery on his right knee toward the end of 2016. He is third behind Alexander Zverev and Karen Khachanov in the Race to Milan standings and would seem to be a sure bet to make it to the #NextGen ATP Finals in Milan in November.
Coric reached as high as No. 33 back in July of 2015 at age 18. It’s not far-fetched to think he could be higher than that by the time the Winston-Salem Open rolls around Aug. 19-26, now that he is fully healthy again.
Coric recently beat No. 1 Andy Murray for the second time in his career, at Madrid, and he has claimed two career victories over Rafael Nadal as well.
While the knee surgery hurt his ranking, he figures he is a better player for having gone through the adversity. It’s all part of growing up on tour.
“I have learned there is ups and downs in life, in every area,” Coric said. “You cannot only go up. That’s normal. I had a small injury, which was unlucky, and then I got injured again and so I didn’t play for the last three months of last season. But, that’s tennis. You just need to make your way up again. That’s normal, I think. Everyone has these ups and downs.”
Make no mistake, the ups have far outweighed the downs so far in his career.
Coric won the US Open junior boys title in 2013 and rose to No. 1 in the junior rankings before turning pro. Thanks to success at the Futures and Challenger levels, including a title in the Izmir Challenger, he cracked the Top 100 for the first time in October of 2014 at age 17. He finished the year as the youngest player in the Top 100.
It was a quick climb up the rankings from there. His first big splash on the ATP World Tour scene came when he beat Nadal to reach the semifinals at Basel in 2014, and by the summer of 2015 he was all the way up to No. 33.
Coric humbly says that he probably didn’t deserve to be ranked that high at the time.
“My expectations were very high, which was maybe not very realistic,” Coric said. “I think at the moment when I was 32, I was not really 32. My tennis was maybe 60 or 70. That’s my opinion. But I was lucky. I was new on tour. No one knew me. I had some luck. But, you know, that was not really my level.”
Even if that was true, it’s not the case now, and his victory in Marrakech in April certainly showed that. A lucky loser in qualifying, he beat four opponents ranked higher than him in the title march, and in a 5-7, 7-6, 7-5 victory over Philipp Kohlschreiber in the finals he showed his heart by fighting off five match points.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Coric said at the time. “I didn’t know what to expect when I came here and I wasn’t in the best shape. But I’ve been working very hard the past three or four months and now it’s paying off.”
Former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic has taken Coric under his wing in recent years. Ivanisevic predicts that Coric will win multiple Grand Slam titles eventually.
Brad Gilbert, who will again be part of ESPN’s coverage of the Winston-Salem Open this year, also loves Coric’s potential.
“I think he’s got a lot of talent,” Gilbert said. “He’s been good since he was 17. I think the best part of his game is he’s a tremendous mover. Very athletic. Similar in style at this point, I’d say he’s a poor man’s version of (Novak) Djokovic. He has patterned himself after Djokovic a little bit.
“I think he’s definitely got Top 10 potential. Let’s just start with that. I don’t want to say something too low or two high, but I definitely think he’s got Top 10 potential.”
Coric played in the 2015 Winston-Salem Open as an 18-year old and showed all that potential. He was seeded and received a first-round bye, then beat Santiago Giraldo and Diego Schwartzman in the next two rounds before losing to eventual champion Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals.
He was unable to play the WSO last year as the knee problems flared up. He hurt the knee in Cincinnati and was forced to retire from his quarterfinal match against Marin Cilic, ironically after beating Nadal the previous day in the round of 16. He hoped that taking the week of the WSO off would help, but then again he was forced to retire from his first-round match against Feliciano Lopez at the US Open.
Surgery would follow soon thereafter.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision because there was nothing else to do,” Coric said. “I could barely walk. You don’t have any other option. The good thing was it was not a very long break. I didn’t play for two and a half months, but it was not like I didn’t play for half the year, you know. It did take me some time to get back, but I think for the last two, three months I’ve been playing very good tennis again.”
Coric said he is highly motivated to make the eight-man field at the #NextGen ATP Finals. But he shoots down any rivalry with Zverev, who reached the Top 10 back in May and currently rates as the top-ranked #NextGen player.
“I have my path,” Coric said. “I have my motivation. I shouldn’t look at others too much. At the same time I can see that he’s doing really well. He’s going to be a top player for sure. He’s already now. It does show me that I need to work also extra harder. At the same time, everyone has their own path and career, so I need to be focused on myself.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Winston-Salem Open has showcased great up-and-coming players throughout its history from Kei Nishikori to Grigor Dimitrov to Jack Sock to David Goffin. The trend is sure to continue this year with a large group of #NextGen players jockeying for position in the ATP World Tour’s Race to Milan. This is the second in a series featuring #NextGen players who could be on hand for the seventh-annual WSO Aug. 19-26.