Borna Coric’s surprise run to the title in Halle, Germany—where he beat nine-time champion Roger Federer in the final—clearly demonstrated that he’s a quick learner when it comes to figuring out grass-court play.
And his peers in the younger set aren’t too shabby, either.
At the Gerry Weber Open, Coric was joined in the quarterfinals by Karen Khachanov, the 21-year-old from Russia who upset Kei Nishikori in the second round. Nineteen-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas—coming off a quarterfinal run in ‘s-Hertogenbosch—took out a seed as well, defeating Lucas Pouille in the first round. Last year’s runner-up in Halle, Alexander Zverev, was also a first-round casualty, as the world No. 3 was ousted in the first round by Coric in a battle of 21-year-olds.
The next generation of stars made their mark at the Fever-Tree Championships last week, too, in Queen's Club. American Frances Tiafoe reached his first career grass-court quarterfinal, notching wins over young compatriot Jared Donaldson and the veteran Leonardo Mayer. Nick Kyrgios—who’s still only 23—advanced to the semifinals of a grass-court event for the second week in a row before losing to the eventual champion and top seed Marin Cilic.
Those results—along with the solid run Alex de Minaur, 19, has had on grass recently at the Challenger level—show that the next generation is poised to shake up the status quo at Wimbledon.
WATCH—Coric defeats Federer in Halle final:
Given their ages and relatively short time on the tour, it’s a bit of a surprise that so many young players are showing such progress on the surface. After all, the grass-court season is almost a blip on the calendar and arrives right on the heels of the much-longer clay-court stretch, which culminates with the French Open. Tournament prep for the next major on the calendar, Wimbledon, is condensed into a three-week stretch.
What appears to be working in the players’ favor is the fact that the grass plays much more uniform now, as opposed to what was used nearly 20 years ago and decades before that, when serving and volleying was the most-traveled road to success. The brown patches on the turf are now relegated to the baseline, whereas in the past, the path to the net was almost worn down by the end of a tournament.
With athleticism and shot-making at a premium, Kyrgios, Tiafoe and their brethren routinely show off those attributes as they’re able to turn defense into offense mid-rally. It’s enough to keep even the most experienced opponent off-balance—as Federer against Coric.
Hitting acutely angled passing shots while on the run and hanging with Federer from the baseline, Coric won the first set in a tiebreak, dropped the second and then rolled through the third.
Predicting such a result would have been a call for the ages: The young Croat entered the tournament with a 2-9 career record on grass.
WATCH—Borg, McEnroe on Federer, Nadal:
What Coric and his peers have done is play to their strengths with a refusal to be intimidated by the challenges that come along with competing on the surface.
Will that approach serve them well at Wimbledon? They’re far from the first set of teens and early-20-somethings that have the potential to do some damage there, like an 18-year-old John McEnroe, who reached the semis as a qualifier in 1977; or Boris Becker, who rode his booming serve to the 1985 title at 18; or Federer, who announced his presence on the world stage in 2001, when he shocked seven-time champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round.
The only teenagers to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon this decade are Bernard Tomic in 2011 and Kyrgios in 2014. And the game’s most prestigious tournament has been a particularly difficult one for anyone other than the ATP’s Big 4 of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who have combined to win every singles title there since 2003.
Coric’s victory, though, is ample evidence that this group learns just like they play: fast. And the All England Club could be just the venue to demonstrate all the lessons they’ve picked up in a short period.
A LANDMARK DOCUMENTARY DURING THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS EVENT IN SPORTS, CELEBRATING THE UNPARALLELED FEDERER-NADAL RIVALRY AND 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GREATEST MATCH EVER PLAYED.
In association with All England Lawn & Tennis Club, Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment and Amblin Television. Directed by Andrew Douglas.