The Western & Southern Open draw was chock full of great talent, with Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev, and Carlos Alcaraz standing out as the favorites. But Nick Kyrgios was playing well, Stefanos Tsitsipas is always dangerous, and Taylor Fritz was rising to his highest level. Other contenders like Matteo Berrettini, Hubert Hurkacz, Andrey Rublev, and Casper Ruud sat in the draw, not to mention Felix Auger-Aliassime, Jannik Sinner, and Pablo Carreno Busta. And if somehow, someway, someone got past all these giants, surely it would be the veteran Roberto Bautista Agut, or a resurgent Denis Shapovalov, or maybe by some fluke of speed and luck, Alex de Minaur. No one knew who would lift the trophy, but if you had asked me before the tournament who I thought it would be, I could tell you one thing for sure: it would be someone who had more than four wins on the season.
What Just Happened?
Return of the Coric
It wasn’t. Stefanos Tsitsipas had literally ten times as many wins this year as Borna Coric. So did Carlos Alcaraz. Rafael Nadal had won two Grand Slams this year, and Andrey Rublev had won several tournaments. Borna Coric was not a good player. He had been a good player, nearing the Top 10 a few years ago, and then injury struck and he took a looooong time in coming back. 2022 was not the year of his comeback. He entered Cincinnati 4-8 on the season, and expressed in his trophy speech at the end of the tournament that he did not expect to make it out of the first round.
He did. Not only did he make it out of the first round, and not only did he win the tournament, but he beat just about every good player on the earth in the process. You could have written a script where a guy who struggled with his return from injury, and hadn’t yet made it back into the Top 100, got an easy draw and through a variety of other coincidences found himself in the final against a weak opponent. That did not happen. Coric had an impossible draw! He had a qualifier in Lorenzo Musetti as his first opponent, but was then faced with Rafael Nadal. After Nadal he was given Top 20-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut, followed by Top 10 Felix Auger-Aliassime. Then from one Top 10 player he had to face another in Cameron Norrie, and finally got yet another Top 10 player in Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.
We reiterate: Coric was ranked #152 coming into the tournament. He was the lowest-ranked player ever to make it to the Cincinnati finals, and then set another record by being the lowest-ranked player ever to win a Masters 1000. But he didn’t just win the final: he beat every player except Nadal in straight sets! He wasn’t scraping by. He didn’t have a fortuitous draw. No one retired or gave him a walkover to smooth his way to the title. He just destroyed the entire ATP field from outside the top 150, with no warning sign to let us know it was coming.
How did he do it?
First of all, he won on his serve. He was serving hard and well most of the week, including a 78% first serve percentage in the final. From there he was obviously able to control the points on his serve, and he was striking the ball well without making errors. He won a remarkable 31 of 32 first serve points against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarterfinals. And even when his first serve was not up to par, as against Nadal and Norrie, he proceeded to win big on his second serve.
He was also hitting the ball well from both sides throughout the tournament. In each of his matches, his opponents finished with either even winners to unforced errors, or more unforced errors. Coric himself finished in the positive every time, including an excellent 37 winners to 14 unforced errors in the final. And he was hitting it hard: Coric matched Tsitsipas in average forehand speed in the final, but outpaced him by 10 mph on the backhand. Powerful, mistake-free tennis with good serving; a recipe for anyone’s success.
Borna Coric will take a week off and then head to the US Open, and will hopefully bring his newfound form with him. Late August is a good time to start heating up, and he makes an intriguing matchup in what looks like a wide open Grand Slam field. He will also rocket 123 places in the rankings to lodge just inside the Top 30 for the first time since last May. What just happened? I’m not sure. But whatever it was, I hope we see it again.
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