By Curt Janka
(March 8, 2013) INDIAN WELLS, California – Up a set and 8-7 in the second-set tiebreaker, Jack Sock hit a backhand passing shot that very nearly won the match. “I missed a pretty routine backhand up the line by a couple of inches,” he said after the 6-3, 6-7, 2-6 loss to Ivo Karlovic. Watching Sock play, it’s easy to conclude he’s also “this” close to being a top player. He has big weapons, variety and athleticism. It just seems to come down to a few big points. This match was his to win.
In fairness, Karlovic is the higher ranked player and a savvy veteran. It showed most of all in the tiebreaker where Karlovic maintained his cool composure. And he should, the guy has made a career out of winning tiebreakers in close matches.
A let down after the disappointment of dropping the tiebreaker was inevitable, but Sock nearly fought it off. In the opening game of the third set, Sock saved three break points before conceding the game on the fourth. If that wasn’t deflating enough, Karlovic elevated his service games.
“He started serving better,” Sock credited his opponent. “He started putting a lot more returns in play, making me play more on serve and I missed a couple balls that you can’t against a guy who serves like that.”
The momentum had shifted and before Sock could right his feet, he was down 0-4 in the deciding set. To his credit, he hung on enough to win his last two service games, but could not get to a break point. Karlovic closed out the match in stoic, unflappable form.
So what went wrong for Sock? A couple inches to the right, and he would have advanced to the next round. He certainly had no problems passing Karlovic prior to earning the match point. Sock executed a solid game plan from the very start of the match, blocking back serves low to his opponent’s feet and working over the Karlovic backhand in every extended rally.
Tennis is a cruel sport. You won’t beat a good player by simply executing the plan most of the time. You also have to do it on the big points. Yes, Sock had a chance to win the tiebreaker in the second set, but he had chances to break Karlovic earlier in the set, too. Notably, when Karlovic was serving at 4-4, 30-30 in the second set, Sock shanked a very hittable second serve. Those are the big points that make a difference in these tight sets. He was blocking and chipping back serves in a good rhythm and then for a split second on this big point, that focus disappeared.
As hard of a loss as this was for Sock, there a list of positives he can take from it and carry forward into the season. For starters, he is healthy and playing again. He wasn’t at this time last year. So he has few points to defend and plenty to gain. For the majority of this match, Sock outplayed his opponent from the ground. His movement looked good, his tactics were sound.
“I was hitting the ball pretty well,” Sock assessed his play. “I was moving well, hitting the ball well.”
Sock’s game continues to develop and he appears grounded enough to know he needs to work on maintaining focus for a complete match. He has the burden of great potential, but loves being out there competing. That passion will surely help him capitalize on his talent. In the meantime, he’s close. Really, really close to cracking the code and rising up the ranks.