On Friday night, 17-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia scored the biggest victory of his young career, defeating World No. 3 Rafael Nadal 6-2 7-6(4).
The match was not the prettiest of displays by any stretch of the imagination, but it highlighted the abundance of talent, composure, and raw athletic ability Coric possesses. From the onset, Coric exhibited a mature balance of offense and defense. There were times when he let an out of form, appendicitis-ridden Nadal make the mistakes and others when he took the initiative, pushing the Spaniard around the court and forcing the action.
Coric’s victory makes the youngest the first player to record a win over a Top 3 player since Nadal himself (over Federer in 2004). Coric also becomes just the second player ranked outside the Top 100 to beat Nadal this year – following fellow rising star, Nick Kyrgios. Per the ATP Live Rankings website, Coric will be ranked inside the Top 100 once Monday rolls around. The last two 17-year-olds to reach such heights were Richard Gasquet and, once again, his opponent.
From the onset, one of the more striking things about how the match unfolded was the way in which Nadal lost it. We have become accustomed to seeing the former No. 1 conquered – rare as even that might be – by the herculean efforts of an underdog. Robin Soderling at the 2009 French Open or Kyrgios at this Wimbledon immediately come to mind.
But the nature of this loss was far different, almost foreign for Nadal and those who have watched him over the years. Well below his best, he committed a whopping 37 unforced errors to just 14 winners. Coric didn’t have to ascend to a hitherto unforeseen level like others have in the past.
He did, however, show a mental strength beyond his years. The youngster stayed cool and steeled himself through a pressure-filled experience: the biggest match of his blossoming career.
After taking a lightning quick 5-0 lead on the back of a litany of Nadal errors, Coric was broken serving for the set and was forced to serve for it again two game slater. At this juncture, it felt as if the Spaniard had begun to find his footing, that Coric was almost certainly about to enter an entirely new match.
Impressively, the teenager stuck to his guns. He maintained that same level of balance from the baseline with which he started the match. His reliance on working Nadal around the court with height and spin was very reminiscent of what Novak Djokovic has done against Nadal over the years. Coric’s serve, which from a technical perspective is extremely solid, guided him through some particularly rough patches at the end of the first set and throughout the second. He possess a clean, quick-fire motion that isn’t susceptible to breaking down and also provides him with plenty of action on his second serve, which consistently pushed Nadal back on the return.
Coric also displayed an encouraging level of patience in long rallies. Ordinarily, any long rally would favor every Nadal. But on Friday, Coric knew engaging in longer rallies need not equate to an automatic death sentence. He blended thoughtful aggression from the baseline with some superb scrambling and, on certain points, looked to be copying the sort of style that made Nadal a legend. The Croat ran left and right as fast as possible to retrieve each and every ball.
As the second set drew closer to the finish line, Coric’s mental edge endured a strict test. Fending off several challenging serve games late in the set, he was able to force a decisive tiebreak. He showed no signs of tension or stress in the moment and, once again, did exactly what was needed to get to the finish line. There would be no highlight reel shots or attempts at the extraordinary. Coric’s game held by the Goldilocks Principle: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.
There’s hardly time for Coric to take it all in and celebrate as he takes on fast-rising David Goffin in the semifinals tomorrow, but at just 17-years-old, we have also hardly seen the best of Coric, and that should be quite a scary thought for the rest of the tennis world.