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Jack Sock: Looking To Make Waves At The O2

American's ability to disrupt makes him a dangerous threat in London

Just days before the Nitto ATP Finals began, Jack Sock didn’t even know he could still qualify for the season finale for the first time. But, as Mark Hodgkinson writes, Sock then went on the most exhilarating ride through the Paris draw to win a first Masters 1000 title, with that victory bringing him across the Channel as the first American singles qualifier at The O2 since 2011. 

In the information age – a time of big data, rolling television news and alerts sent to your smartphone – ignorance can be a wonderful thing. 

Take Jack Sock, who just before Halloween rolled up at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 in Paris – the last opportunity to qualify for the season finale – not knowing he had a chance of being at the Nitto ATP Finals. Others in the draw might have been fretting over the maths that could perhaps have taken them to The O2, but Sock, who started Paris at No. 24 in the Emirates ATP Race to London, was completely oblivious to the ifs and the buts, the permutations and the possibilities. Sock had been planning on spending this week playing golf with his close friend John Isner at the August National, the home of The Masters, but has happily had to cancel that trip. 

Every athlete is looking for a way of dealing with the stresses of competition; every once in a while – and naturally this can’t be pre-planned and only happens fortuitously – a tennis player benefits from being unaware of what’s on the line. In Sock’s own words, he “snuck into” the eight-man field in Greenwich, taking others and also himself by surprise with his run at the other end of the Eurostar. After a bye through the opening round in Paris, Sock found himself 1-5 down in the final set of his second-round match against Britain’s Kyle Edmund. You have to consider whether Sock would have extricated himself from that situation if he had known which prizes were on offer in Paris – the title would also propel him into the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings for the first time, as well as guaranteeing he will end the year as the American No. 1 for the first time. Would that have been too much to think about as Edmund twice served for the match? 

Sock might just have the best name in tennis, especially as it accurately describes the way he strikes a forehand. Kapow. Wham. Crash. Sock. This is someone who plays his forehand as if he’s inside a Roy Lichtenstein painting. And that shot is even more potent when – free from too much pressure and expectation – he can open up his shoulders and swing freely at the ball. As John McEnroe said to Sock this autumn: “You’ve got the shots, you’ve got the speed, you’ve got it all.” 

It was only after Sock’s next match, a third-round victory over Frenchman Lucas Pouille, that he was told he could possibly qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals, and that information didn’t come from a private conversation with one of his team, but during a live interview with Sky television (when showing the Emirates ATP Race to London on screen, Sock’s name didn’t appear until they scrolled to the third page). But that new information didn’t seem to alter his thinking – as if those few days of ignorance had set his mental approach for the entire tournament. On quarter-final day in Paris, tennis was increasingly fixated on the possibility of a player coming from nowhere to qualify for London, but the player in question wasn’t Sock but Juan Martin del Potro. But then del Potro, who would have qualified for London by winning his quarter-final, lost his match to Isner and Sock, an even more improbable story than the Argentine, just kept on going. 

“Crazy things can happen,” the 25-year-old Nebraskan would say after coming from a set down to defeat Serbian qualifier Filip Krajinovic in the final, so completing one of the most unlikely qualification stories in the history of the season finale. Going through the draw in Paris brought all sorts of rewards to Sock, who before the tournament had never played in the final of an ATP World Tour 500 or Masters 1000 tournament, let alone won a Masters 1000 title. 

The United States is no longer the tennis superpower it once was; Sock’s Parisian victory was the most important title won by an American man since Andy Roddick – also a Nebraskan – took a Masters 1000 title in Miami in 2010. Racquet-heads in the United States also celebrated Sock becoming the first American champion in Paris this century (since Andre Agassi in 1999). 

As Sock put it, there were lots of “firsts” in Paris. Victory also made him the first American to qualify for the season finale in London since Mardy Fish in 2011. More widely, this was also a moment for non-Europeans. Sock’s victory ended a run of 69 consecutive Masters 1000 titles for European players. If Sock had lost the Paris final, the Nitto ATP Finals would have been a field of eight Europeans. As it was, he won and displaced Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta

What makes this story all the more astonishing is that, just a couple of tournaments before Paris, Sock had been on a five-match losing streak. After winning a couple of titles in the opening weeks of the season, in Auckland and Delray Beach, and reaching his first semi-final of a Masters 1000 with a run in Indian Wells, Sock went through some rough times this year. Those experiences would doubtless have made his victory in Paris all the more satisfying. 

It’s not as Sock hadn’t won any big prizes before, it’s just that up to this point in his career he had been more successful in doubles than when flying solo, including winning the 2011 US Open mixed doubles title with compatriot Melanie Oudin. Scratch pairings don’t tend to win Wimbledon titles, but that was exactly what happened in 2014 when Sock combined with Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, in a team that some called ‘Popsock’, to take the men’s doubles prize on the All England Club grass. The Rio de Janeiro Olympics last year brought another illustration of Sock’s class, as he won a men’s doubles bronze medal alongside Steve Johnson and a mixed doubles gold medal with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. 

But now Sock has elevated himself in singles; anyone who qualifies for the Nitto ATP Finals, however late, has had a fine year. An American hasn’t won this title since 1999, with Pete Sampras the last champion representing the United States. And it had been imagined that the closest that an American man would come to playing singles at this year’s season finale was that one of the groups is named after Sampras (with the tournament celebrating the competitors from the 1990s). But then Sock – to borrow his own phrase – snuck in. Long spoken of as the future of American men’s tennis, Sock has the game and the momentum to unsettle the tennis establishment in London. Should anyone tell him? 

The 2017 Nitto ATP Finals will be held at The O2 in London from 12-19 November