Indian Wells: Smyczek d. Sock

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Immediately after Jack Sock smacked a reckless forehand winner and followed up with a ghastly double fault to give Tim Smyczek his third match point with Sock serving at 2-5 in the third set, Tennis Channel commentator Jim Courier said: “If I were James Blake (Sock’s part-time adviser)  I’d have a word with him about that. The game now is so tough, so physical, so international — our (U.S.) players need to do everything right to be competitive. And here’s exhibit A of someone who hasn’t taken on that responsibility.”

Those were strong words (which is why Courier is a refreshing as well as insightful commentator), and for a few minutes immediately afterward they also seemed premature. For Sock survived that third match point, and he went on to hold a game even though he had played what Courier described perfectly as a “reckless” game. Furthermore, with Smyczek quaking in his Nikes, Sock then broke serve to put the match back on serve as he stepped to the line to serve at 4-5. But this messy match ended when Smyczek broke for a final time, leaving Courier’s words lingering in the air like the smell of cordite. The final score was 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.

This was one of those helter-skelter affairs that degenerated into chaos right before our eyes. Smyczek broke Sock in the very first game and he made that break stick, finding himself in trouble just once along the way.
In the eighth game, Sock worked his way to three break points. Smyczek fended off the first two with no great drama,  but the third save was a beauty. Caught coming forward on too short a ball, Smyczek had to beat a hasty retreat under a Sock lob.  But the Smyczek caught up with the ball and, spinning around, nailed a beautiful cross-court backhand winner. He saved the game with that shot, and pocked the set when he held his next service game with considerably less effort.

The pattern by then was clear: Sock would try to use his serve and big forehand to bully and pound his opponent, a slightly built warrior of 5-foot-9 who plays a throwback game featuring lots of slice, a taste for attacking, and excellent, soft hands. But in truth, Sock’s game was up-and-down from the get-go, and not at all what you would expect from the muscular 6-foot-1, 21-year old often hailed as the great U.S. hope.

When Sock jumped out to an early 3-1 lead in the second set, and ripped through the ensuing three games to win it, the realities of the contemporary game seemed to have kicked in for good. Sleight-of-hand can only get you so far these days.

In the third set, the men fought over a Smyczek service game that lasted nearly 10 minutes and ended with Sock converting an ominous inside-out forehand winner on his sixth break point for 2-1. There was a certain amount of sense to the way the match had developed to that point; Sock seemed to be breaking down and wearing out his smaller opponent. But when Smyczek broke Sock right back — and with ease — for 2-2, all bets were off. Smyczek held the fifth game easily and then broke Sock and held again to build a 5-2 lead. In the next game, Sock threw in two double faults and found himself down two match points. He cut loose then, playing recklessly — but effectively — to ward off three match points and hold for 3-5.

At the same time, Smyczek’s arm stopped paying attention to the signals sent by his brain. He played a terrible game to give the break advantage back, with Sock to serve at 4-5. But Smyczek settled down.  He played a solid game in which the highlight was a topspin lob that caught hard-charging Sock flat-footed on his way to the net — a shot that gave Smyczek two more match points, at 15-40. He needed just the first one, as he survived a rally long enough for Sock to drill a backhand into the net.

Stat of the match — As shaky as he sometimes looked, Smyczek’s net play was excellent. He won 12 of the 19 points he played at net (63 percent), compared to just seven in the same number of attempts by Sock.

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