INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Hand it to Feliciano Lopez. His entire career, this 36-year-old man from Spain had built a playing style that defied a nationwide agenda. In a country where success tilted on grinding groundstrokes, serves that mostly just go in play and intermittent forays to the net, the left-handed Lopez’s primary assets have long been a booming delivery and disruptive groundstrokes—flat, top, slice—that scarcely match the metronomic and concussive qualities of his compatriots.
The 28th-seeded Lopez’s opponent on this Tuesday evening at the BNP Paribas Open was the top-ranked American man, Jack Sock. Sock led this rivalry 2-1, Lopez’s lone victory coming five years ago in Memphis. And even though Sock was seeded eighth, that ranking disparity meant absolutely nothing throughout the entire match. That was especially true in the first set. As early as 3-all, Sock and Lopez were each dictating so forcefully with their serves that a tiebreaker was the likely end point.
Sock beguiles. There is often a harsh, violent quality to his technique that triggers ups and downs—bold winners (18 off the forehand in this match) and strange miscues (15 unforced from the same side). And yet, at net, Sock can show off a deft brand of touch.
“It’s tough to play Jack,” said Lopez. “He can play almost everywhere on the court.”
6-all came soon enough. Sock served at 2-0 and 4-2, only to surrender each mini-break. Then came three remarkable points. Lopez served at 5-6—and then struck two straight aces to Sock’s forehand, the first clocking in at 138 mph, the second at 136 mph. With Sock serving at 6-7 into the ad court, Lopez knifed an old-school shot, a staccato-like backhand block-chip that went just low and short enough to elicit a Sock forehand into the net.
“He’s an unorthodox player,” said Sock.
Lopez vs. Sock match point:
But while Lopez stole the first set, Sock pilfered the second. With Lopez serving at 4-5, Sock reached set point at 30-40. It was erased with the left-hander’s pet, a wide serve to the backhand. Sock won the next point and then, holding another ad to level the match, the American carved a rather masterful, if perhaps inadvertent, backhand slice down-the-line that evaded Lopez’s reach and landed smack on the line. After 91 minutes, the match was dead even.
And yet, to watch Sock is to see someone seemingly unable to pile one brick on top of another. So much of Sock’s technique narrows his options. He needs time to set up for his howitzer-like forehand—hardly easy versus Lopez’s serve. The Sock backhand lacks the repeatable contemporary technique mastered by the likes of Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori. None of this was helped by Lopez’s sustained high-quality serving.
The 2-all game told the tale. Down love-40, Sock struck two aces and a forceful approach to get back to deuce. With an ad to go up 3-2, Sock inexplicably struck a forehand long. Finally, on Lopez’s fifth break point of the game, Sock approached Lopez’s backhand—usually the best play—only for the Spaniard to smoke a down-the-line pass so forcefully that Sock could only strike a meager volley. Lopez handily swatted the forehand and from there rode his serve to the victory, easily closing out the 5-4 game at love. On match point, he hit a deft slice down-the-line backhand past Sock that would bring a smile to Martina Navratilova’s face.
Sock afterwards looked rather dazed, as if he’d been in a car crash where he wasn’t certain if he’d been driver or passenger.
“It could have been better, could have been worse,” he said. “A lot of room for improvement.”
Lopez, at 36, has mastered the art of self-knowledge.
“I’ve been very consistent the last five to six years,” he said. “You know your game better, you know your opponents better, so you know what you have to do.”
If Lopez has found his answers, for the 25-year-old Sock, there remain questions. What is his game meant to be? Power baseline or all-court versatile? Can Sock, in time, wed disciplined footwork to his impressive foot speed? Can sustained consistency cohabitate with flurries of firepower? How well Sock grapples with those queries will likely tell much about American tennis in the next five years.
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