NEW YORK — He came to this US Open as the forgotten prodigy. The over-the-hill 20-year old. The bold kid whose mouth might have been bigger than his game. Borna Coric was a stalled player who needed to do something spectacular to revive his reputation. He did it on Wednesday evening in the most satisfying way imaginable.
Coric upset Alexander Zverev, the highest ranked and most formidable of the under-21 set that goes by the popular name and hashtag, #nextgen. Zverev was the No. 4 seed here, and has enjoyed so much recent success that many pundits put him right up there with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the potential champion.
“I needed it, but it isn’t like I would die if I didn’t win,” Coric said, following the 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4) win, in a sometimes brutal slugfest that lasted for three-and-a-half hours. “I was fighting, I give it my all, it was a very good day.”
It was not good — really not good — for Zverev. Unlike Coric, he had a lot to lose in this one, given that he was in the bottom half of a draw robbed of the No. 2 seed, Andy Murray, who withdrew because of his continuing hip problems.
“Today was upsetting,” the forlorn-looking Zverev said afterward. “The way I played was upsetting. The tournament so far is upsetting for me. I know that I could have done some big things here. I know that I could have done something that I haven’t done before. But I won’t. It’s just as simple as that.”
Zverev was clearly referring to wanting to win his first major title, an honor that many observers have all but already granted to him. But for all his ambition and confidence, the path to a Grand Slam title is strewn with obstacles. In New York, those include unpredictable factors like finishing a lengthy first-round match after 2 a.m., and a crowd that has a special place in its heart for the underdog. Zverev had to deal with both of those in his brief sojourn in Gotham.
Although he started strong, cracking service winners and monstrous forehands, Zverev was unable to break Coric’s spirit even when he smothered the Croatian in the first set. Coric was focused throughout, and he came out on top in many of the rallies that each player appeared to have won — only to see the point go on. The key game of the match was Coric’s recovery from a 0-40 deficit to force the decisive tiebreaker in the fourth set. The escape took the air out of Zverev’s game.
“This was one of the best atmospheres I ever played under,” Coric told his surprisingly large contingent of supporters in his on-court post-match comments. “I was struggling a lot at the end but you helped me through.”
Perhaps the crowd in the Grandstand sensed that Coric deserved a break. He was just 17 years old in 2014 when he upset Rafael Nadal in the Basel indoor tournament. He went on that year to become the first 17-year-old since Nadal to crack the ATP’s Top 100.
Early in 2015 Coric stunned Andy Murray in Dubai. He made the third round at his French Open debut. By July, he’d vaulted into the Top 40. Although he lacked conspicuous weapons, he had a clean, ultra-grooved game developed with a precocious faculty for working hard. He earned the nickname “Baby Djokovic.”
Coric also was developing a reputation for high self-regard, thanks to pronouncements like the one he made to a French reporter after the 2015 French. “When I play my best, yes, I’m more a Djokovic, game-wise,” he told her. “When I’m not at my best I’m more like Murray.”
The penchant for braggadocio was understandable. Coric appeared to hold the future of tennis in his hands. Then he dropped it.
Coric seemed to hit the wall created by his lack of a big weapon. His learning curve flattened. He also suffered a knee injury that ultimately led him to opt for surgery, pulling the plug on his 2016 season in late September, soon after back-to-back retirements at the Cincinnati Masters and the US Open.
There’s a little more backstory to this upset. Coric and Zverev were junior rivals; the Croatian eliminated Zverev on his way to the US Open Boys title in 2013. Zverev would edge Coric out for the No. 1 junior ranking at the end of that year, but Coric had another big win against Zverev in the 2015 Cincinnati Masters. This leaves him 3-0.
Zverev was dismissive of Coric’s hold on him. “We played two times [three, including that junior clash], so I don’t know, is that a history? I think Rafa and Roger have a history. Or Novak and those guys have a history. I don’t think we have a history. We played two times.”
Coric also downplayed personal rivalry, partly because of how far ahead of his peers Zverev has forged. “He’s had an unbelievable year. He’s No. 6 in the world. But the nextgen thing is quite cool. It puts us on the map, even thought we all have our own paths.”
Granted, it isn’t much to go on. But the future beckons, and the paths of the two 20-year-olds are likely to intersect a lot more often.