Can Borna Slow Novak’s Chase For No. 1?
Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic?
That task falls to Borna Coric on Sunday at the Rolex Shanghai Masters, where the 21-year-old Croatian will compete in his maiden ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final. And if the two-time ATP World Tour champion hopes to lift his biggest trophy yet, he will have to solve what is arguably tennis’ toughest riddle at the moment.
Djokovic, who is 10-0 in finals in China, has won 17 straight matches and 24 consecutive sets leading into the championship clash. The No. 2 seed is pursuing his fourth trophy in Shanghai and his 32nd Masters 1000 crown, which would move him within one of Rafael Nadal for the most at the elite level.
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Djokovic v Coric
But that’s not the only reason that it’s an important match for Djokovic. He is making a run at finishing atop the year-end ATP Rankings for the fifth time in his career. Djokovic was outside the Top 20 as recently as July, but the Serbian will climb to No. 2 on Monday, and he can move within 215 points of World No. 1 Rafael Nadal if he triumphs against Coric.
“It’s important, and I am grateful that I have this achievement. I’m proud of it. Obviously I worked hard for it, and my ultimate goal is to get to No. 1 by the end of the year. I’m in a good way,” Djokovic said of moving up to No. 2, which he guaranteed by defeating Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals. “But being No. 2 after this tournament is also a great achievement, considering the first four, five months of the year and considering I had the surgery [after the Australian Open], and where I was about four months ago and where I am today is quite an extreme opposite. I’m just cherishing that achievement and every moment spent on the court.”
Djokovic knows that while this is uncharted territory for Coric, beating the Croatian will not be easy. Coric upset top seed Roger Federer on Saturday in straight sets after also winning against the Swiss earlier this year to capture his maiden ATP World Tour 500-level title at the Gerry Weber Open.
“He’s a hard worker. He’s one of the hardest-working guys on the Tour,” Djokovic said. “He puts a lot of effort in practice. He’s one of the leaders of the new generation. He’s played some great tennis so far this week.”
And while Coric has enjoyed the best season of his young career — he will soar to a career-best No. 13 regardless of Sunday’s result — such a big breakthrough was even a surprise to him. Coric simply took the court against Federer with the mindset that he had nothing to lose.
“It happened much earlier than what I expected, to be honest,” Coric said of reaching a Masters 1000 final. “I’m also as surprised as you, probably.”
It will also be a different type of match for Coric, as Federer and Djokovic play different styles. The 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier did well to keep Federer from finding an offensive rhythm in the semi-finals, taking it to Federer at every opportunity. Djokovic on the other hand is arguably the best neutralising defender in the world, known for his elastic sliding around the court and all-around game.
“He plays more similar to me. Actually, I play more similar to him. When I was a kid, I was looking up to him and I was always trying to play like him,” Coric said of Djokovic. “I need to change a couple of things, but I just need to go out there and just need to enjoy. That’s the most important [thing]. I just need to try to play like today and we will see what’s going to happen.”
Coric owns a 2-2 FedEx ATP Head2Head record against Federer, Nadal and former World No. 1 Andy Murray. But Djokovic has won the pair’s previous two matches without dropping a set. One thing working especially well for the Serbian this week has been his serve. Djokovic has won all 37 of his service games in the tournament, facing just three break points, and he will try to continue that in the final.
“I love the way I have played so far this week,” Djokovic said. “I’m ready for whatever challenge is across the net.”
That will be Coric, who is not just an opponent, but a friend. The No. 13 seed grew up idolising Djokovic, before befriended him on the ATP World Tour. Now, Coric has an opportunity to spring a massive upset against his friend to add an even greater achievement to his resumé.
“We are really close friends. I was looking up to him since I was really, really young,” Coric said. “We are friends now, but tomorrow on the court we are going to try to win.”