Borna Coric first stepped into the spotlight as a teenager. When he was 17, the Croatian defeated Rafael Nadal. Just months later, as an 18-year-old, he upset Andy Murray.
A former junior World No. 1, Coric was clearly one of the tennis’ greatest young talents. With that came expectations according to former World No. 4 Brad Gilbert.
“Six or seven years ago, even before Alexander Zverev, everyone was thinking this guy was going to make a move and be a Top 5 player,” Gilbert said of Coric. “For whatever reason he had some results, but he didn’t go on the trajectory continuing upwards. Some of these other young guys have jumped him.”
It’s not that Coric hasn’t enjoyed success. By all measures, the Croatian has done well, especially for his age. He has climbed as high as No. 12 in the FedEx ATP Rankings (5 November 2018), won two ATP Tour titles and reached an ATP Masters 1000 final at the 2018 Rolex Shanghai Masters. The list of top opponents he has defeated is lengthy: Nadal, Murray, Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro and Dominic Thiem among others.
Coric is still only 23. He has learned that expectations are not something he needs to worry about.
“I learned [during] that time I cannot focus on the other people’s opinion, that I don’t gain anything from that. I need to be focussed on myself, on the things which I need to do, on the things that I also need to improve,” Coric said. “I think every player has that, especially the ones who are a little bit younger, who had pretty much all the attention on them since a very young age. I think it’s also very important for them to learn that they need to focus on themselves.”
Coric defeated Jordan Thompson on Sunday at the US Open to reach his first Grand Slam quarter-final in his 22nd major appearance. It’s a rewarding feat for a player who struggled in 2019 with hamstring, abdominal and back injuries.
“It does feel great, to be honest. It’s a very big relief for me. I wanted this for a very long time,” Coric said. “I’m just very happy that now after this break, which came very good to me, because I was able to resolve some of my body issues, stuff like that, then I’m playing good. I’m pretty healthy now.”
Coric was very close to being eliminated in the third round. Reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas was near the finish line against the 27th seed, leading 7-6(2), 4-6, 6-4, 5-1. But in the match of the tournament, Coric found another gear to save six match points and rally past the Greek star in a fifth-set tie-break.
“You feel like the next day you’re on house money. When I called his next match, everything was about how he recovered… He just took care of business physically and the most important thing is to get over the euphoria and the feeling like you won the tournament,” Gilbert said. “I think he did everything that he could and now you set your sights on the next day’s practice and recovery.”
Coric, who in addition to his Tsitsipas victory needed four hours and 19 minutes to oust Juan Ignacio Londero in the second round, is doing exactly that.
“My mentality was [that] as soon as I finished that match, I needed to focus on my next match, because that’s tennis. That’s tennis tournaments at the end of the day. It’s not like boxing. Once you win, you can go and you can celebrate [in boxing],” Coric said. “My mentality was I need to recover as quick as I can. I played two very, very long matches. I was just trying to focus on my next match.”
Coric will next face a familiar foe in 2017 Nitto ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev. Coric not only beat the German en route to the 2013 US Open boys’ singles title and he also leads their ATP Head2Head series 3-1.
“He’s playing I think some of the best tennis of his life,” Coric said. “It’s going to be [a] very interesting match.”
Croatian Mate Pavic, who is into the doubles semi-finals alongside Bruno Soares, believes Coric’s big run resonates in their country.
“It’s a big thing. We are a small country with quite a few good players. Marin [Cilic] won the title here in 2014. Borna has played some great matches. He came back from an unbelievable situation against Tsitsipas, from match points, serving for the match and all that stuff. I believe he’s very confident now,” Pavic said. “It’s going to be an open match [against Zverev]. He’s going to have chances and I believe he could go far this year.”
Coric has already gathered momentum by making it this far. That could play into his hands in the last eight.
“I’m the kind of player that needs wins. I need to play matches so that I can feel confident,” Coric said. “Honestly, it’s hugely important for me. It’s the best thing I could do.”
On Friday evening, Coric could have been booking a flight out of New York. Instead, the 23-year-old remains very much alive. He has a chance Tuesday to reach his first major semi-final.
“Sometimes in life and in tennis you can turn things on a dime and you don’t worry about what’s happened the past few years,” Gilbert said. “You live in the moment and this is the best result of his career. Who knows? It could get a lot better.”