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Roger Federer dominates Jack Sock on the first-strike rate in his opening round-robin win at the O2 arena.

Brain Game: Quick Start Spurs Federer To Win Over Sock

Federer turns a seemingly counter-intuitive strategy into an early advantage

Hit them before they can hit you.

The match lasted an hour and a half, but Roger Federer was well on his way to winning it before a ball had been struck. Federer defeated Jack Sock 6-4, 7-6(4) in their opening round match at the Nitto ATP Finals on Sunday in no small part to winning the toss and electing to receive.

The decision went against Federer’s normal front-running tactics of serving first and letting his opponent chase him. This time around, Federer was on the hunt to immediately break and instantly unsettle his American opponent. Six points later, his goal was accomplished and Sock played the rest of the match in Federer’s rear-view mirror.

Federer’s early strategy of playing to Sock’s stronger forehand wing seemed counter-intuitive, but it was layered in strategic brilliance. Sock loves to run around his backhand and hit forehands from the ad court, so Federer simply went the other way, attacking Sock’s forehand out wide in the deuce court. Sock loves moving to his left, so Federer attacked him to the right. That works at every level of our sport.

Sometimes it takes a few games to figure out a player’s strategy. But in this match it took exactly four shots. On the opening point of the match, Sock predictably served to Federer’s backhand, and the blocked return predictably went to the ad court. On cue, Sock ran outside the doubles alley to hit his forehand as he loves to do, and he targeted the Federer backhand cross-court. It was all going to script, until Federer rifled a backhand down the line to the vacant deuce court for a dazzling winner. Gotcha.

At 30/30, Federer targeted the same location wide to Sock’s forehand in the deuce court for another clean winner — this time from his own run-around forehand. At 30/40, Federer blocked a backhand return cross-court, and then crushed his second backhand winner of the game down the line to the vacant deuce court.

The match was just six points old, but Federer had masterminded his early blitz to perfection. Sock’s confidence and momentum had taken a direct hit after just over two minutes of play.

Federer’s control of the match was also seen in the aggressive manner he collected his points. Overall, he hit 28 winners and forced another 24 errors, while also receiving 24 unforced errors from Sock.

Federer Points Won By Style Of Play

 Style  Points Won
 Aggressive Play  64% (52 winners and forced errors)
 Consistent Play  36% (24 unforced errors)

Federer won the “first strike” rally length of 0-4 shots 58-50, gaining an eight-point advantage in these shorter points. Of all rallies five shots or longer, Federer only won five more points than Sock (23-18). Seventy-two per cent of all points in the match featured a maximum of just two shots hit in the court, and Federer was on the front foot for the vast majority of them.

Federer only lost four points behind his first serve for the entire match (36/40), and backed that up with a healthy 65 per cent win percentage (15/23) behind his second serve. The power game of Sock was negated early by the precision game of Federer.

Sock’s average first-serve speed was eight miles per hour faster (124 mph to 116 mph), and his average second serve speed was a dominant 11 mph faster (107 mph to 96 mph). Sock was also more powerful off the ground, averaging 70 mph with his groundstroke speed to Federer’s 66 mph. How hard the ball was hit was trumped by where it went and when.

Crunch time in a match typically comes with the finish line in sight. On this occasion, it was just a few paces past the starting line.

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