Most tennis fans are familiar with the scenario where one player receives a time warning for taking too long between points, gets riled up, and then uses that anger to rouse himself and lift his game. Sock took that concept one step further on Thursday. After dropping his serve in the opening game of the third set, Sock plucked a ball out of his pocket and belted it into the crowd. Chair umpire Damien Dumusois hit him with a point penalty, which meant the American would start Zverev’s next service game down 0-15. Sock had just finished losing the second set 6-1; now it looked like he would be behind the eight ball right away in the third.
Instead, Zverev’s rhythm was completely thrown off by the incident. He double faulted twice, missed an easy forehand into the net, and was broken at love. Zverev double faulted two more times in his next service game, and was quickly behind 4-1—of the 22 points played after Sock’s penalty, Zverev lost 17 of them. While the German finally steadied himself and leveled at 4-4, his comeback fell short when he double faulted yet again—his eighth of the evening—at 4-5 to set up match point, and then missed a forehand—a shot he struggled with all week—to give Sock the see-saw victory.
The result also sent Sock into the semifinals in London, and sent Zverev home. The winner-take-all nature of the match had made it a testy one from the beginning, and it swung back and forth and back again every five or six games. Throughout, though, it was a battle between the solid and the flashy. For the most part, Zverev was content to sit back and hit high and heavy and force Sock to come up with something spectacular. In the first and third sets, Sock obliged, winning points with drop volleys, one-handed backhand passes, reflex forehand passes, and wickedly bending inside-out forehands.
The match could have gone either way, but the result leaves each player with a different feeling heading into the off-season.
The 20-year-old Zverev had the breakout, five-title season, but he failed to live up to his No. 3 ranking this week. In his matches with Sock and Roger Federer, Zverev let opportunities slip and looked vulnerable on the forehand side—there’s work to be done, in other words, before Next turns to Now.
Sock, on the other hand, will finish his 2017 in the midst of a meteoric ascent. Ranked 21st as of three weeks ago, he’s into the semis at his first ATP Finals, and he’ll finish the year in the Top 8. He has won five straight three-setters in his last two events, and with each match he seems to gain a greater sense of belief that he can play with the elite. Sock still wins with flash, but the results are getting more solid every day.