Frustrations boils over for Borna Coric
Borna Coric lets his frustration get the better of him during his first-round loss to John Millman on Day 1.
AO19 Ones to Watch: Borna Coric
Few young players have made a more of a splash than Borna Coric.
In just his 14th match on the main tour, in Basel late 2014, the 17-year-old Croat stunned Rafael Nadal. A couple of months later in Dubai, he toppled Andy Murray.
A teenage, Croatian version of Novak Djokovic, with close-cropped hair, bruising baseline game and hard-nosed competitiveness, Coric seemed destined to join his idol at the top.
But for the next three years, he plateaued. His 2015-17 seasons finished with near identical, narrow losing records: 26-28, 22-24 and 24-26. “I was not going where I wanted to,” Coric recalls. Top-50 finishes didn’t cut it for the young man who has “There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary” tattooed on his playing arm.
“I stopped working on some aspects of my tennis,” he admitted with admirable honesty. “I had that big breakthrough when I was very young and I think I was not mature enough. My game was not on that level yet. And then all the people expected that it’s going to keep going and it’s going to happen.”
Knee surgery in late 2016 was a brake on his progress, as was an ever-changing coaching line-up, although Coric insisted: “I cannot blame anyone else for my bad results.” A settled coaching arrangement with Riccardo Piatti and Kristijan Schneider and a gruelling, six-week pre-season saw everything change in 2018.
Noticeably fitter and stronger at 188cm and 85kg, Coric won his second ATP title in Halle over none other than nine-times-champion Roger Federer. “Coming into the match, I didn’t see any chance how I’m going to win, especially on grass,” he later revealed. He topped the Swiss again in Shanghai - “I served the best in my life” - to finish 2-1 in their 2018 meetings. In their first clash of the season, the semis at Indian Wells, Coric had led the world No.1 by a set and a break.
Shanghai was his first Masters final, a quality 6-3 6-4 loss to then-No.3 Djokovic. “I thought I was playing actually really well,” Coric said, which the highlight reel confirms. The other main takeaway from Shanghai was the increasing difficulty in telling them apart. But if Coric is yet to take a set from Djokovic in three meetings, the apprentice is getting closer to the master. “Absolutely I did prove to myself that I can beat the best players again.”
Coric had his best Grand Slam finish in the US Open fourth round. He ended the year celebrating with teammates around the Davis Cup trophy, having led Croatia into the final with a five-set win in the fifth rubber over the US. The just-turned 22-year-old ended the season with a 40-20 win-loss record and a career-peak ranking of 12.
Coric’s undaunted Davis Cup play was always an indicator of his ability to perform under pressure. He made his debut aged 16 and took six games from Andy Murray. Months later, ranked 295, he took down No.21 Jerzy Janowicz in Poland. In 2018, Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil took one set from him. In the semifinal at Zadar, Coric won both singles, coming from 1-2 sets down in the decider against Frances Tiafoe to sweep 12 of the next 16 games. In the final he defeated Jeremy Chardy in straight sets.
Born in Zagreb, based in Dubai, Coric is a boxing fan, which is all too apparent in his gladiatorial style. He relishes the one-on-one fight and searching tests of character. “I like to suffer,” as he put it in Shanghai.
The cocky intensity that makes him a fan-magnet has been there from the outset. Coric tells of his formative first trip outside Croatia, to a junior tournament in Rome - “I remember almost every detail.” The young tyro spent two weeks preparing for his international debut and expected to win - “I thought it’s basically normal that I win the tournament.” When he lost the final to Gianluigi Quinzi (who went on to become world No.1 junior), Coric worked off his anger at himself with 100 push-ups and sit-ups. He was eight years old.
“When I was younger, I was a little bit weird,” he tells the ATP of his maniacal focus for the game. “I wouldn’t do anything else. If you want to do something, you need to sacrifice something for that.”
Likeable and relaxed off the court, Coric is no less intense between the lines. “I like to practise. I like all the hard work. For me, it’s not a problem,” he says, while admitting to the occasional sleep-in. “Yes, I am a very hard worker.”
As he eyes a first win at Melbourne Park on his fifth trip, that tough work ethic will serve Coric well. But no less than his thirst for the big time. “I love the big stage,” he says. “I love all the buzz.”