No, Jack did not slay the giant. But he came incredibly close. The battle was hard-fought, and the gold was everywhere in the skillful tennis on display by both players.
I am, of course, writing about one of Friday afternoon’s most spirited Round One matches at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Veteran Ivo Karlovic, 34, barely avoided a first round loss in the match against one of America’s most competitive young tennis players — 20-year old Jack Sock. The 6’10” Croatian player is not only the tallest player ever on the ATP Tour, he also has a giant serve (Karlovic served 12 aces, twice as many as Sock) and a giant reach. But he only won the match (in Sock’s words) “by a couple of inches.” And it’s true.
The opening set could not have gone much better for Sock; at 4-2, he achieved a triple break ball and only needed the first one. Karlovic’s serve had simply not shown up yet. Throughout, Sock’s serve was quiet… yet effective, with Karlovic often finding it difficult to return. The situation was the opposite of most everyone’s expectations of how the serve/return scenario might play out — but it should be noted that Sock lost only two points on serve in set one.
Whereas set one went smoothly, the second set was full of drama. In many ways, it was the deciding set of the match. Sock earned one golden opportunity to break the Karlovic serve. But when break point arrived at 5-5, Karlovic stepped up and forced a tie-break, where he quickly set up a 4-0 lead, dropping just one point in the rest of his two service games. Still, the crowd was still behind Sock, even cheering him on throughout several missed opportunities. With Sock at match point at 8-7, the Croat fought hard and won the next two points to take the set. As Sock explained in a post-match press conference, “When you have match point, the match seems like it’s pretty much in your hands. I had a pretty routine backhand up the line to make, and I missed it by a couple of inches and missed a simple forehand to lose the set.”
At one point, Karlovic was exasperated with the crowd’s adoration of the likeable young American; after hitting a winner, he motioned to the crowd to cheer for him a little too. Alright, he did more than motion — he sort of pleaded. Okay, he begged. Hey, sometimes even a giant needs some love, I guess. One highlight of the match occurred when a ball bounced into the stands behind Karlovic’s service line. When the gentleman in the audience threw the ball back to the court, it hit Karlovic in the head. Karlovic had a bit of fun with the moment, feigning rage and threatening to hit the ball back at the guy with one of his top service speeds. Let’s assume that it was an accident. But who can blame the fans for wanting to support Sock? When he steps onto the court, he brings with him the possibility that American men’s tennis has a solid and winning future. He is fitter, leaner and stronger at the core than ever before, and he continues to add to his arsenal of astonishing strokes.
The third set was sort of a reverse of set one. For Sock, it was almost a perfect bell curve of a match, with his early steady ascendancy followed by an equally steady decline later on. Where Karlovic had been lackluster at first, his game was awakened in the second set tie break and stayed strong for the continuation of the match. In the third set, the lost opportunity had clearly found its way into Sock’s head and into his game, as he surrendered his serve twice. Karlovic pounced at the chance to come back strong, holding at 5-2 before finishing out the match.
Karlovic advances in the tournament with a 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-2 end score in the match that took one hour and 52 minutes. He next meets American Sam Querrey.
In the end, Sock won five more points than Karlovic, but Karlovic stayed focused and got the job done. Sock’s failure to convert a match point against Karlovic in the second set was one of those points that everyone in Stadium 2 felt deeply… evidence of the crowd’s great expectations of Jack Sock’s BNP Paribas appearance. Sock’s recent successes (making it to the Memphis quarterfinals and winning the Delray Beach doubles with partner James Blake) may have hit a bump in the ATP road in Indian Wells, but there is no doubt what lies ahead. Jack Sock is not only capable of realizing the great expectations everyone has of him, but with his game continuing to develop so strongly, he is destined to.
Tennis champions, unlike beanstalks, are not built overnight.