The odds-on favourite to win the Nitto ATP Finals, Roger Federer swept past Jack Sock in imperious style on Sunday - despite a moment of slapstick comedy when he missed the easiest shot that anyone will be asked to hit all week.
Tennis crowds are always fond of a chuckle, as anyone who has sat through the hackneyed “Come on, Tim” jokes at Wimbledon will know. But the punters at the O2 Arena enjoyed a real belly laugh in the seventh game, when Federer sauntered up to the net to slap a looping Sock volley away for an easy winner. At least, that was what should have happened.
Instead, Federer seemed to be distracted by the way Sock turned around and presented his backside to the net – a humorous routine that Sock’s close friend Nick Kyrgios also uses when he finds himself stranded in an impossible position. With the entire court at his mercy, Federer planted his forehand into the tape.
Afterwards, Federer was asked what contribution Sock’s rear end had made to his unusual miss. He played along like the good sport he is. “It was a big distraction,” Federer replied, “I'll tell you that, because it [the bottom in question] was very big. That's what I should have aimed for. That target was bigger than the down-the-line court that I had.”
Roger on Jack Sock "It was a big distraction because it was very big. That's what I should have aimed for. That target was bigger than the down-the-line court that I had!" #Federer#NittoATPFinalspic.twitter.com/ACuUcMtFe4
— Ludmi-Wan Kenobi (@LudmiGabino) November 12, 2017
The only service break of the match came in the opening game, as Federer struck three clean winners up the same sideline. He had to work a little harder in the second set, as Sock fended off five break points, but was still able to close out a 6-4, 7-6 victory in exactly an hour and a half.
A 25 year-old from Nebraska, Sock is the first American to play at the ATP Finals since Mardy Fish in 2011. His forehand is his key asset – a wristy snap that imparts well over 3,000 rpm of topspin. But Sock’s weakness is his return of serve. As a result, Federer never faced a break point. Throughout the match, his average service game lasted only 78 seconds.
Despite this handicap, Sock could potentially have taken the match into a deciding set if he had not thrown in a poorly timed double-fault at 4-4 in the second-set tie-break. Two points later, he missed yet another return to conclude this opening match.
“It was really just a matter of trying to keep the ball in play,” Federer told Annabel Croft. “It's always a struggle early in a tournament. After a while you're just happy to hit some good strokes. The second set was tight, the breaker could have gone either way but he helped me with a double fault and some mistakes.
“It’s wonderful to be here, especially after missing last year with injury. It was tough not to be here then, but at the same time I really enjoyed the battle between Andy [Murray] and Novak [Djokovic] for world No 1.”
Both Murray and Djokovic are notable absentees at this year’s ATP Finals, although Murray did show up for a practice hit with Dominic Thiem on Saturday morning. Federer was asked for his opinion on Murray’s state of fitness, judging by the exhibition match they played in Glasgow on Tuesday. “I think it was actually encouraging,” he replied. “I didn’t expect him to be this fit yet.”
But the BBC commentators were more sceptical. “It's slightly bizarre because you see him walking around in between points or away from the court, [and] the limp is quite pronounced,” said Tim Henman, who also participated in Tuesday’s exhibition. “Then when you see him moving on the court, his movement is improving. But I still think he's got a long way to go to get back and be 100 per cent.”
Andrew Castle was even more concerned. “There's no question he's not right. I tried to find out a few things about his hip, the team doesn't give too much away. He's doing his best to be ready to go out to Australia and to acclimatise. But, look, I've got a metal hip, the hip is bad news. I'm very worried about Andy's future in the game.”