By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - The first surprise is that Croatian Borna Coric is young enough to play in the ATP's inaugural Next Gen Finals in Milan next week -- so familiar is his face on the Tour.
The second is that the 20-year-old, with 159 ATP Tour matches to his name, is not leading the charge of a new brigade trying to dislodge the established hierarchy.
Coric, who made a name for himself three years ago by beating Rafael Nadal at the Swiss Indoors, has not backed up the early promise which drew comparisons with Novak Djokovic.
The fact that he only qualified for the eight-man showpiece event for the world's top-ranked players aged 21 and under last week, underlines his slow-burning progress.
In 2014 he finished the year as one of only two teenagers inside the top 100, the other being Nick Kyrgios.
The following July he reached a career-high 33 in the rankings, ended 2016 just inside the top 50 and slipped down to 79th in April, before edging back to his current 51.
With 20-year-old world number four Alexander Zverev blazing a trail to qualify for the prestigious season-ending ATP Finals (and skipping the Next Gen event), Russian duo Andrey Rublev, 20, and Karen Khachanov, 21, ranked 35 and 44 respectively and Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov tipped for great things, Coric is often an afterthought when predicting future champions.
His game style -- patience and craft rather than spectacular firepower -- is one reason for that.
Coric shrugs off the lack of attention, preferring to focus on the long game rather than keeping pace with his peers. He still clearly has time on his side.
"When I beat Rafa back then and got to the semi-final in Basel, I didn't believe that was my level. I think my true level then was maybe 60 or 70 (in the world); not in the 30s," Coric told Reuters at the Swiss Indoors where he lost to compatriot Marin Cilic for the third time this year.
"I had a bit of luck and was fighting for every point like it was my last. No one knew how I played. The first year can be good for everyone. It put me on the map but made the expectations higher but my game was not there.
"That was the problem. It was only a matter of time that my ranking would drop because you can't just win matches by fighting or by luck," he added.
"I had to go away and gradually build my game, see what was good and what was bad. I think I've done that well."
While impressed by the strides Zverev has made and a keen follower of the results of the younger players, Coric is not putting too much pressure on himself.
"It's not about catching Alex," he said. "I'm just motivated by working hard and focusing on my own career."
Coric needed knee surgery at the end of last year, hindering his off-season training.
He lost his first three matches of 2017 but rebounded on the claycourts where he beat then world number one Andy Murray on his way to the last eight in Madrid having claimed his first ATP Tour title in Marrakech.
At the U.S. Open he knocked out title dark horse Zverev but his form again deserted him after that.
The highest-ranked player he has beaten since then is number 94 Henri Laaksonen in Basel last week.
"This year I had much bigger plans for sure. I wanted to finish in the top 25," Coric said.
"The last few weeks I've been struggling and haven't played very good. I've not had the best attitude, it's not been great. I've been very nervous."
While Coric's progression may have stalled, the Next Gen Finals, featuring shorts sets, no service lets and no advantage points, offers a springboard into next year.
"If it was a normal tournament we would probably be thinking we can't wait to finish the year," he said. "But this will bring something new to tennis."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)