Why you should care

Because greats in tennis, and all sports, can spring from all sorts of inspirations.

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Borna Coric has been at the helm of some of pro tennis’s biggest upsets over the past year. But ask him who his favorite athletes were growing up, and you won’t hear only the names of your typical tennis legends. You’ll hear the name Mike Tyson.

Does it make sense? Not particularly until you hear that his early hope in life — assuming he was not a tennis player — was to be inside a ring trading punches. He’s even seen nearly all of Iron Mike’s fights on YouTube and says he likes the former heavyweight champ’s professional persona. “I just like his character when he’s in the ring,” the 18-year-old tells OZY.

He just has that sort of air of confidence and almost certitude about him. It’s not a bluff.

- Steve Flink

Next week, elite-level tennis returns for its 11-month season with the ever-popular Australian Open, the first of four Grand Slam events each year. And those with a keen eye on future tennis stars, which is a full-time hobby for many tennis addicts, will be watching this kid, who managed to get his first endorsement deal (with Nike) at age 11, before more recently running off a string of nice wins, including his biggest upset over Rafael Nadal. He is now frequently compared to the current No. 1 player in the game, Novak Djokovic, as his own ranking soared from 303 to as high as 89 in less than a year. “The kid will become threatening soon,” says longtime tennis writer Steve Flink. “To everybody.”

Which leads to another question that experts have pondered for some years now. How does the young nation of Croatia, from which Coric (pronounced Cho-rich) hails, manage to produce so many stars, such as Ivo Karlovic (25th in the world), Marin Cilic (last year’s U.S. Open winner) and Goran Ivanisevic (the 2001 Wimbledon champ)? This tiny country of just 4.3 million people — about the population of Kentucky — even managed to win the Davis Cup, tennis’s most coveted team event, in 2005. Is it a secret training program? A special approach to the game? Or just pure luck?

Apparently even tennis experts can only hazard a guess. But one theory is that a good number of players emerge from unexpected parts of the world because they see the sport as a means of upward social mobility and — given these circumstances and a high ability level — then make the required “over-the-top commitment it takes to become a tennis player,” says Joel Drucker, a veteran tennis historian. And other reasons may just be the raw desire of individual players and a burgeoning tennis culture in the region, as has been documented in nearby Serbia.

Borna Coric recently showed off his tattoo to his over 9,000 Instagram followers.

Borna Coric recently showed off his tattoo to his over 9,000 Instagram followers.

Source Borna Coric

As for Coric, the 6-foot-1, sandy-haired teen with a tattoo on his right biceps — you’ll have to keep reading to find out what it says — got started at just 5 years old in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. Over the years, he’s developed a regimented routine, through which he trains the same way each day and on match days, prefers the same meal (shrimp pasta) and wears the same outfit (well, not the exact same, but a new one with identical colors and design). After seeing early success at both national and international tournaments, he’s gone on to play major events in countries all over the world, including Switzerland, Italy, France and China,and in his first full season on the ATP Tour, he expects to be on the road about 40 weeks this year.

But Coric is also making some substantial changes as he sets his sights on joining the top 50 by the end of this season. He’s got a new cornerman in coach Zeljko Krajan, another countryman who briefly played on the ATP Tour and is now captain of the Croatian Davis Cup team, which means Coric has parted with his former tutor, Ryan Jones — a risky decision considering their success together. (Coric would only say they had some “small issues” and that it was “a natural change,” while Jones did not respond to a request for comment.)

Not surprisingly, Coric says he has managed to get some help from past stars from his country. Ivanisevic, the fellow Croat who hung up his racket in 2004 after a 16-year pro career, has shared pointers regarding some of Coric’s few weak spots, like his forehand and serve. “He’s been kind of a mentor to me,” says Coric. The teen insists that he plays with his own style, though when pressed, Coric acknowledges that his game most resembles that of Djokovic’s — a strong defense, with consistent tempo and the ability to cover the entire court well, not to mention a stellar backhand. “He just has that sort of air of confidence and almost certitude about him,” says Flink. “It’s not a bluff.”

It’s that kind of temperament that may have suited Coric well in the ring, and that one of his sporting predecessors — Andre Agassi — extolled in his own autobiography, in which he proclaimed tennis to be “non-contact pugilism” and wrote that the choice is to “kill or be killed.” Coric may not go that far, but the next time he takes a swing, try to catch a glimpse of his tattoo: “There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary.”

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