The most wonderful time of the year is upon us, people. That’s right: it’s PTW Season.

Today marks the first installment in a ten-day series during which, once a day, I’ll attempt to steer your attention toward a player who bears close watching in the upcoming tennis year, as said player is poised for great things.  Before I tell you about our first selection, let me tell you a bit about the ground rules and how players were selected/rejected for this staggering honor.

I started with a list of 50 players who are all under 22-years-old and ranked between ATP #150-500. As such, very good candidates were eliminated right from the get-go. Jiri Vesely? He sure does bear watching in 2014, but since he’s already ranked #85, he’s already more or less transcended the Challenger ranks.

In Czech Republic, Vesely Watches YOU

In Czech Republic, Vesely Watches YOU

Pierre-Hugues Herbert? A fantastic prospect who I plan on watching very closely this coming season. But at age 22, he’s far too over the hill for a list of young up-and-comers such as this.

He Wrote: "On March 18, I Turned 22 And Became Too Old for PTW Honors."

Hard to Read, But He(rbert) Wrote: “On March 18, I Turned 22 And Became Too Old for PTW Honors.”

Thanasi Kokkinakis? Yeah, I’ll probably spend most of 2014 ruing his exclusion from this list, as he likely world-beats his way to the top.  But he’s currently outside the Top 500 (#624, to be exact). And if he doesn’t Vesel his way into the Top 100 this year, odds are he’ll be my top pick next year.

In order to have a place to even begin, we must have at least a few limitations, folks. And the “Under 22, ranked #150-500” model is the one I traditionally use. So if it ain’t broke…*

I will tell you that the group of 50 — even with those limitations — was an impressive bunch to behold. The group as a whole had a 2013 winning percentage of 64.1%, with an average increase of over 300 spots in the rankings for the year. So if you didn’t win more than 6 of 10 of your matches? Sorry, you’re already of no use to me.  The bottom line is: you had to do a lot as a player to stand out from this bunch.

And boy (literally) does our first Player To Watch ever do that.  At just 17 years (and 16 days) of age, the Croatian sensation known as Borna Coric tops the candidate charts in many ways.  The youngest of the group, he actually has the best winning percentage of the bunch, putting away his opponent over 73% of the time — and that’s solely in the pros.

"Surprise! I am Challenger Tennis's First Player To Watch for 2014!"

“Surprise! I am Challenger Tennis’s First Player To Watch for 2014!” (Photo: CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY)

Although he turned pro this year, since he’s junior aged, he also played, you know, junior tennis this year as well. Actually, he didn’t just play as well — he played even better, as he won 85% of his junior tennis matches during his 2013 campaign. But I’ll let Colette Lewis tell you about the Junior #1’s exploits at that level (and about how he won the Boys US Open crown etc.).

Borna Gain

Borna Gain

The 367th-ranked Coric was quite the closer this year, winning all four of the finals he made (five if you count the US Open Boys Final vs. Kokkinakis), racking up four Futures titles and raising his ranking 940 places since the beginning of 2013.

In just the third Futures event of his career, at the Great Britain F9 in Bournemouth, he came through qualies and won six matches in as many days to take the title. And his season still hasn’t ended, as he continues to toil away in Thailand Futures events as of this writing.

Borna To Run

He has yet to post a Top 200 win (240th-ranked Germain Gigounon is the biggest scalp he’s collected in his young career) or make a Challenger semifinal (though he had match points to make one at the Yokohama Challenger vs Herbert a couple of weeks ago), but expectations are still huge for the former top-ranked junior in the world.

And not just from schlubs like me. “My dream for him is to be better than me. So that means he has to be Number One (I was #2), and he has to win at least two Grand Slams,” says his mentor, 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, in this entertaining Goran profile (“1-0 for me. Please no crying, OK?” he tells his five-year-old son while they play soccer.):

Though there are many YouTube videos that show him playing, there are no recent, brief ones from which you can get a very good sense of his game, in my opinion.  Borna himself has uploaded a few as well as put together a video playlist of some of his junior days.

You can also see him play an entire Wimbledon junior match vs. Hyeon Chung, if you are so inclined (spoiler alert: he loses).  Though its a bit rough and you can’t see where his shots are actually going, this is probably still my favorite short-ish Coric video out of the bazillions I’ve watched in researching this article:

And this one of his shots in slo-mo at the US Open is also interesting:

Coric’s nickname isn’t “Lava”, but it totally should be. In addition to burning across all surfaces when it gets hot, “lava” is also the Croatian word for “lion cub”, which is what Borna most resembles to me.

With a compact, catlike quickness as he skitters and skids around his favored hard courts, the occasional yowls as he strikes the ball, and a bad temper when things aren’t going his way, don’t let his cutesy photo ops fool you — Borna will bite you.

Lifestyles of the Coric And Famous

Lifestyles of the Coric And Famous

Unlike many players his age, Borna eschews the more traditional training centers of Spain and Florida and instead logs time with his coach, Ryan Jones, in Middlesex, England, alongside 15 Brits and Donna Vekic in an innovative program funded by venture capitalist Clive Sherling and overseen by former LTA perfomance director and Tim Henman coach, David Felgate.

Earlier this season, Coric spoke of his need to improve his volleys, serve and forehand, and from what I’ve seen from him late this year, he’s gone a long way towards doing that. At 6′ 1” (1.85m) and 178 lbs (74kg), the teenager obviously still has some growing, strengthening and filling-out to do.

Borna Free(weights)

Borna Free(weights)

But the fact that he’s been able to mix it up with the guys on the pro tour despite not being nowhere near his physical peak bodes well for the future.  It will be very exciting to see how he does beyond the Futures at the Challenger and ATP/Slam-qualifying levels in 2014.

Especially after he practices with Rafael Nadal for ten days over the Christmas holiday, which are his current plans. I encourage you to watch his progress closely.

*Tell me if it’s broke though, because it probably is.

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