There wasn’t much that separated Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev during their long, grueling, and never less than intriguing first-round match at the Western & Southern Open on Tuesday. The two 18-year-olds wore virtually the same red-and-white Nike kits, which they sweated through with equal thoroughness. They played similarly powerful and remarkably polished baseline games, which they used to push each other all over the court for more than two hours. And in the end, the score couldn’t have been closer. Zverev led 3-0 in a third-set tiebreaker, but Coric won seven of the next nine points to nose his fellow teen out at the finish line, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (5).
The stands in Mason, Ohio, somehow, weren’t packed for this match. There were other attractions on the grounds—namely, Nick Kyrgios, who did the sport a favor by bowing out in a hurry to Richard Gasquet. But if the 20-year-old Kyrgios gave tennis fans an unpleasantly in-your-face vision of tennis’ future last week in Montreal, yesterday Coric and Zverev, the two youngest players in the Top 100 at the moment, offered another, more cerebral version of that future in Cincinnati. Despite the similarities between the two players, their match gave us what qualifies, by the narrow standards of today’s men’s game, as a contrast in styles.
Because of their youth, Coric-Zverev also gave the hardcore tennis fans in the audience a chance to play one of our favorite parlor games: Imagining which player and which style will find more success down the road. “This could be a Grand Slam final someday,” we like to say in these situations. It doesn’t always come to pass: I seem to remember hearing someone (not me, of course, definitely not me) say those words when Donald Young and Sam Querrey faced off in the U.S. national junior final in Kalamazoo a decade or so ago. But it’s always a tantalizing thought.
Coric and Zverev make for an especially interesting matchup because each of their games are of a definite, well-known type. To oversimplify, Coric is the grinder, Zverev the shotmaker. Yet their styles also overlap. Each can look, at times, like the other. Each, it seems, is still in the process of discovering how he plays.
Coric, a native of Zagreb, Croatia, has been called Baby Djokovic, and as much as fans seem to hate these types of nicknames, this one fits. Like Djokovic, Coric plays with well-measured precision, and a similarly rubbery style of movement. Like Djokovic, he thinks long-term; rather than blowing opponents off the court, he wears them out with his legs and his relentlessness. And like Djokovic, his ground strokes look endlessly repeatable. At 18, with his hair cut severely and not an extraneous ounce on his body, Coric already has the vibe of a battle-tested veteran. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him let his emotions get the best of him, which is saying something for a teenager.
That’s where Zverev comes in. The German, whose father is a former Russian pro, may look like Bjorn Borg on the outside, but he has more than a little John McEnroe on the inside. From what I could see, he kept himself in check on Tuesday, but earlier this summer in Washington, D.C., he wasn’t afraid to let a chair umpire know that, “Your opinion is crap.” Zverev obviously has no trouble communicating in English.
As a player, Zverev has the one thing that Coric doesn’t: Single-stroke, point-killing power. Over the last year, he has shot up to 6’6”, and he says it took him a while to adjust to his new frame. But now that he has five inches on Coric, the advantages are obvious; yesterday the Croat struggled mightily to make inroads on the German’s serve.
As far as what he’s capable of, Zverev doesn’t seem to have figured everything out just yet. Rather than attack at the first chance, he’ll rally and defend before suddenly pulling the trigger. If there’s a Djokovichian quality to Coric, Zverev’s indolent power can seem Federer-esque, or Safin-esque.
On Tuesday, Coric and Zverev took turns as aggressor and defender, and the lack of set patterns between them made their rallies more enjoyable than those you see in the average baseline affair. In spite of their youth, these two junior rivals also brought an enjoyably taut and business-like intensity to the match; they must know each other well, and, age-wise and status-wise, they were on a level playing field.
So which of them is going to be better? For now, answering that depends on what we determine to be the most valuable asset for the modern-day tennis player to have. Is it steadiness and steeliness? Is it mobility? In those cases, Coric is your man. Is it rally-ending power and a bailout serve? In that case, go with Zverev.
As much promise as each has shown, all young players come with flaws as well. The way Coric was manhandled by Jack Sock at the French Open, and the way he collapsed over the last two sets against Andreas Seppi at Wimbledon (4-6, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1, 6-1), was worrying, but perhaps he just needs to mature physically. And the moodier, streakier Zverev can still go through deep funks of inconsistency, where he seems to lose all feel for the ball. He also suffered a brain-cramp of two in losing that tiebreaker to Coric. But in the matches of his I’ve seen, he can dig himself out of his funks as quickly as he can fall into them. With Zverev, the shots are always lurking.
When the tiebreaker began, and these two exhausted-looking young players took their places at their respective baselines, I thought Coric would end up the winner. Repeatable shots are usually a good bet against more erratic, if spectacular, talent. And that’s how it went; Zverev bolted to an early lead before imploding, while Coric hung in and took his chances when they were presented to him.
When it was over, Coric walked slowly to the net, while on the other side of the court Zverev set about destroying his racquet. As the Croat took a deep breath of relief, Zverev acknowledged the cheers from the crowd by waving his smashed frame as he walked off court—two points, in the end, had been all that separated them. Where they go from here, we’ll just have to wait and see, and that will be the fun part.