by Richard Evans
Everyone talks about how difficult it is for young male players to break into the top echelons of the game because of the power and the physicality.
Teenagers are almost as rare as a white tennis ball in the world’s top two hundred right now but Nikolas Kyrgios showed that a 19-year-old can make an impact with that stunningly explosive victory over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.
But it takes talent as well as self belief and an even younger player may have the same attributes. Borna Coric is just 17 but he has already started to look like a Croat ready to join a long, long line of top players from that country, stretching back to when it was part of Yugoslavia.
Nikki Pilic, Boro Jovanovic, Zeljko Franulovic, Goran Ivanisevic, Mario Ancic, Ivo Karlovic, Ivan Ljubicic and Marin Cilic have woven an impressive tapestry of success for that small nation and I mentioned them when I met young Borna at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton just before he flew up to New York and added more luster to his growing reputation by qualifying for the US Open.
“Yes, I know them,” he said with a smile. “I’ve met them all. They have been very supportive.”
Tall, and probably still growing, Coric strikes you as a mature, straight forward teenager, perfectly at ease in his surroundings and happy to chat in his excellent English. But, first, we have to get one thing straight. “It’s pronounced Chorich,” he says firmly. Commentators please note.
It is a name we will all be using with increasing frequency if his early results are anything to go by. Coric first came to notice when he was thrown into a very deep end against Andy Murray when Britain travelled to Croatia for a Davis Cup tie last year. Of course the 16-year-old lost but he didn’t feel overwhelmed and proceeded to prove just how ready he was for the big time by beating the giant former Wimbledon semi-finalist Jerzy Janowicz when Croatia played Poland in the Davis Cup in Warsaw last April. Apparently unperturbed by the occasion or the power being thrown at him across the net, Coric came through a demanding five set battle 2-6, 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.
“I think everyone expected I would lose fifth set easily,” Coric said. “But I played really well in the fifth. I didn’t choke. I didn’t drop my level. It was the best win of my life for sure.”
And he added a couple of other good ones when he defeated Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Horacio Zeballos, both season ATP players ranked in the world’s top sixty, on clay at Umag in July before losing to Italy’s talented Fabio Fognini.
The success Coric is enjoying is all the more creditable considering the badly broken arm he suffered at the age of twelve when he fell against a metal chair placed right at courtside. “It was bad,” he admitted. “And it was worse because I needed another operation on my wrist because of problems caused by the broken arm.”
The scar on the wrist is there for all to see but Coric says he has not had any problems with it since. “It was tough because I am very active and get impatient when there is nothing to do,” he says. “So I played table tennis left handed. I got quite good. Maybe it helped that I write left handed.
It’s strange because I do everything else right handed.”A little extra ambi-dexterity never hurt anyone and Borna obviously has talent to spare.
Coric says that winning five ITF Futures events helped his confidence when he first played on the ATP tour. “There’s a huge difference, obviously,” he said. “But I seem to be able to handle it. Even against Murray, it wasn’t as if I couldn’t play with him. It was just a big step up. He’s unbelievably quick.”
Speaking of his own game, Coric says his backhand is his best shot. “And my serve is good, if it’s my day. I can be dangerous with the serve. I can also sustain a long rally but my volleys need some improvement. There’s work to be done there.”
Borna enjoys getting back home to Zagreb occasionally – he comes from a family of lawyers -- but gets itchy feet pretty quickly. “I enjoy the travelling. I like Melbourne and the Italian coast; Miami and New York – I love America. I’ll be coming down here to Evert’s for training in between tournaments from now on. It’s a great place.”
Working with his coach Luca Kutanjac, Coric won’t be short of friendly faces. As we talked, another Croat, Ajla Tomljanovic, was pounding balls a few yards away on the practice court. The rising WTA star is just one of many who have used Evert’s as a spring board for success on the tour.
Coric is on his way, as he emphasized by beating Tapei’s Jimmy Wang 7-6, 6-1 in the final round of qualifying at Flushing Meadow a few days later. How far and how fast the tour’s new Croat can rise will be something to look out for in the coming months.
Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 160 Grand Slams. He is author of 16 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He was the play-by-play commentator for BBC Radio at Wimbledon for twenty years.