First Ball In, 8/7: Close Calls

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Jack Sock nearly sent the Toronto crowd home very unhappy, but fell to Milos Raonic, 7-6 in the third. (AP Photo)

Twice Jack Sock ranged to his left on a break point in the third set. Twice he got the shot he wanted to hit, an inside-out forehand. Twice he missed it. Twice his opponent, Milos Raonic, held serve.

If Sock had made one of those forehands, he would likely have gone on to record the most satisfying win of his career. As it was, the 21-year-old went down to an especially frustrating 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) defeat, his fourth to Raonic in 2014 alone. This time Sock had taken a set, he had broken Raonic’s virtually unbreakable serve, and he hadn’t been broken all night. But it still wasn’t enough, because he couldn’t make his favorite shot when he needed to make it. The way Raonic plays tiebreakers these days, you need to break his serve twice, a daunting task for anyone.

“When you play him,” Sock said later, “usually when you get down a break, it usually means the set’s over. That’s why he kind of is where he is, though, he kind of comes up big in those moments.” 

It’s hard to know what to make of Sock at this moment. There's no doubt he has improved. His ranking is up to No. 60, he’s winning matches at Masters events, and he’s a Wimbledon (doubles) champion. I had never realized how fast his feet are until his last match with Raonic, in D.C. last week. Sock can get around and hit a forehand even if the ball is in the doubles alley on his backhand side. When he hits it right, it's one of the deadliest kill shots in the game.

But there’s also something risky about that it. He guns the ball with maximum arm speed every time, and in the clutch moment on Wednesday, in the third-set tiebreaker, it was his forehand that provided the crucial errors that gave Raonic the win. While it’s impressive that Sock can get around to hit a forehand from anywhere, it would be even better if he could crack a solid backhand from those positions instead.


“You have to go in. You have to show her.”

Wondering where you’ve heard those words before? If you watched any of Maria Sharapova’s matches from 2011 to 2013, you heard them come from the mouth of her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, whenever he visited her on a changeover. 

And if you were watching Sloane Stephens yesterday in Montreal, you heard Hogstedt say those words again. The Swede is working with Stephens now, and while his advice to her may have sounded like boilerplate, it really is what she needs to hear. Sloane really does need to go in, rather than waiting for the ball. She really does need to show some desire, some positive emotion, to keep herself from getting so despairingly down on herself.

On Wednesday against Jelena Jankovic, Sloane almost made Hogstedt’s words work for her. She was more aggressive than normal, and she fought harder than usual when she was behind, hard enough to push the seventh-ranked Jankovic to a third-set tiebreaker before losing. It would have been a rare Top 10 win for Stephens.

In March, at Indian Wells, Sloane played the first tournament in which she was given sideline advice by her coach at the time, Paul Annacone. She reached the quarterfinals, her best result of 2014. By July, they weren’t working together anymore. Hopefully, this solid result from Stephens in her second tournament with Hogstedt isn’t as temporary as that one was. I’m not sure it was a great sign that, while he was standing over her and telling her what to do at the end of the second set, Sloane interrupted him to put on some lip balm.


Speaking of players with new coaches, Andy Murray and Amelie Mauremso won their first match of the hard-court season together, as the Scot quietly and thoroughly sent Australian teen Nick Kyrgios back to school.

It’s obviously too early to tell anything about the Murray-Mauresmo partnership, or what effect it will have on his game. But yesterday I did notice, or at least I thought I noticed, a little more subtlety in it. Murray went to the slice backhand a lot, and varied its location. He hit a topspin lob winner. He changed speeds on his ground strokes. 

Of course, he was helped by the fact that he served well, and Kyrgios obligingly hit himself out of the match. But Murray has always had an artistic side to his game, one that he has intentionally blunted for the sake of efficiency, and which was blunted even more in the Ivan Lendl years. Lendl, a brutal player in his day, rightly emphasized Murray’s forehand and his aggression, and it worked. It will be interesting to see if Mauresmo, a more varied player in her day, can bring out Murray’s own thoughtful versatility, and make it work just as well.


OOP Analysis

See Thursday’s Order of Play in Montreal here and Toronto here.

Novak Djokovic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: From one Frenchman to another. Yesterday Djokovic ran his record to 10-0 against Monfils. Today he’ll try to win his 12th straight match over Tsonga. If you’re wondering if Nole will be tired, he usually isn’t.

Andy Murray vs. Richard Gasquet: You would think that Mauresmo would know her countryman’s game well, not that Murray really needs the info. He’s won five of their last six matches, though it hasn’t always been easy.

Roger Federer vs. Marin Cilic: Federer has lost one set in their four meetings. This would seem to be a good chance for Cilic, who is having a solid season, to get at least one more.

Maria Sharapova vs. Carla Suarez Navarro: These two veterans have played just once, last year in Indian Wells, where Sharapova won in straight sets.

Venus Williams vs. Angelique Kerber: Something about Venus’s game—her inconsistency, most likely—suits Kerber. The steady German is 3-1 against her, and she has been playing well of late.

Sabine Lisicki vs. Agnieszka Radwanska: Their first meeting since The Drive-By.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Shelby Rogers: I’ll be curious to see if Rogers, who looked so good against Genie Bouchard, is more than a one-upset-wonder.

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