Few expected Jack Sock to perform as he did at the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2, where the top eight ranked players in the world contest the season finale.
Despite being the lowest-ranked player there, the American reached the semi-finals and lit up a tournament that was missing some of tennis’ biggest names.
The men’s game has enjoyed a golden era over the last decade, with four players – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – peaking together and distancing themselves from the rest of the field.
There has only been one Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open where none of this aforementioned quartet were involved. That was at the 2014 US Open, where Marin Cilic overcome Kei Nishikori.
But change is imminent. All four are 30 or over, Federer is nearer to 40 while the rest seem otherwise distracted by injury or personal issues.
High-class tennis players are emerging, such as the 20 year-old German Alexander Zverev, who is currently ranked No.3, but there will be four very big holes to fill once that elite group step off the circuit.
Those gaps appeared at the ATP Finals. Only Nadal and Federer participated, with the Swiss disappointed by his semi-final exit while the Spaniard’s knee could only last one match before forcing him to withdraw.
But a personality did emerge. Sock only qualified at the last opportunity, his Paris Masters title coming days before the start of the tournament, and subsequently lifting him to No. 8 in the rankings.
“I shouldn’t have been here in the first place”, confessed the 25 year-old Nebraskan. Only a tournament victory in France would have been enough for Sock – who ended October ranked 24th – and defeating Serbian qualifier Filip Krajinovic in the final meant he took the final spot at The O2 at the expense of Spain’s Pablo Correno Busta.
And once in London, Sock captured the hearts of the crowd with his free-wheeling and sometimes thrilling tennis.
The final match of the Boris Becker group between Sock and Zverev was effectively a quarter-final, with the winner finishing second in the group and qualifying for the semis.
The German had the momentum heading into the deciding set, but Sock’s combination of power and delicate touches proved too much for the youngster.
Delightful drop shots were immediately followed by smash returns off Zverev’s serve. Sock’s 6-4 1-6 6-4 victory was well earned despite suggestions that Zverev choked.
Playing for fun
Tennis is a very calculated game, but Sock’s informal attitude seemed to be his trump card.
“I talked to my coach [Jay Berger] and we said, screw it, take the pressure off yourself, go have fun on court again.”
And fun was had. During his opening match – a 6-4 7-6 defeat to Federer, the American scooped up a ball for the world No.2 to easily volley for the point.
It was here that Sock turned round and ‘presented’ his behind as a target for the Swiss.
But while he may have a care-free attitude and is often seen sporting merchandise of his beloved Kansas City Chiefs or ploughing down the fairway on the golf course, Sock is far from the stereotypical jock we may imagine him to be.’
‘He can’t even legally drink a beer in the US’ – Sock on Zverev
Always respectful of opponents, Sock’s sensitivity was displayed during the press conference following his victory over Zverev. When asked whether he thought the German had choked, Sock was embarrassed, smiling awkwardly as Zverev was still fulfilling media commitments at the back of the room.
Not wanting to disrespect his opponent, the Nebraskan answered other questions before diplomatically responding once the young German had left the room and shut the door behind him.
“It’s tough. The guy is 20 years old. He’s played some absolutely outstanding tennis in his career. I mean, he can’t even legally drink a beer in the US and he’s three in the world”
Aside from his obvious ability as a tennis player, Sock showed his decency as a man.
The run ends
Inevitably, the American’s run had to end, losing 6-4 0-6 3-6 at the semi-final stage to the eventual champion, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.
“When you play a guy [Dimtrov] of that calibre you can’t give him that many opportunities. He took advantage today… really stepped up his level and came up with some pretty crazy shots in the third set.”
“I nuked a return to his feet but he had an unreal pick-up. There’s a reason he has been playing consistently all year, that’s why he’s in the final.”
Next year could be the one when male American tennis finds its rhythm once again. Not since Andy Roddick, Sock’s fellow Nebraskan, has a player from the US made such an impact on the men’s game.
With the big four loosening their grip on their global dominance, breaking into the top 10 is only the start, with high ranking places and tour titles within reach.
But for Sock that is all the other side of a well-deserved break.
“I don’t want to talk about next year, I just want to go play golf.”
Ed Krarup worked in media liaison during the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2.