Jack Sock was down and just about out, lying on his stomach on a secondary court at the Paris Masters as a trainer massaged his stiff lower back. True, Sock had just saved a break point in the previous game against Kyle Edmund, but that had only kept him from trailing by 0-5 in the third and final set of his opening-round match.
It looked very much like the end of Sock’s season, one that had started full of deep runs and promise and largely failed to deliver. But his back felt looser when he rose to resume play, and though he soon fell behind by 1-5, he played with fresh abandon and salvaged the match in a tiebreaker, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).
Four rounds later, he also found a way to win the title — his first in a Masters 1000 tournament — and earned a spot in the top 10 and the final slot in the tour’s most exclusive event, the eight-man ATP Finals that begin Sunday in London.
“We weren’t feeling too good at 1-5,” said Jay Berger, Sock’s new coach. “But it’s a great lesson to learn and great for Jack to realize that if you get through one match, it’s pretty amazing the things you can do.”
No American had won a Masters 1000, the top tier of men’s events after the Grand Slam tournaments, since Andy Roddick won the Miami Open in 2010. No American has played in the ATP Finals since Mardy Fish in 2011 after he, too, secured the eighth and final spot in Paris.
That achievement felt like a late-career reward for Fish, who was 29 at a time before Roger Federer had reset the biological clock for men’s tennis excellence.
Sock, long considered a great talent with his wrenching forehand and athleticism, turned 25 in September.
He said that of all the consequences of his surprise Paris victory, breaking into the top 10 meant the most. “I think that everyone that grows up and aspires to be a tennis player dreams about being in the top 10 and pushing from there and going as far as you can,” he said in an interview.
Asked if he might frame a copy of this week’s ATP rankings, where he is at No. 9, Sock demurred and said, “I hope to be framing a lower number than that in the future.”
Still, these are giddy times for a man who arrived in Paris ranked No. 22 and with no thoughts of an ATP Finals debut. Other players were seemingly better placed to claim the final slot.
“Obviously there’s only eight guys a year who make it and to do it for the U.S. — and not only for myself — is special,” said Sock, who will face Federer in the opening singles match on Sunday. “I’m just going to go to London and play free. I snuck into the last spot, so nothing to lose.”Sock did, however, miss out on a tee time at Augusta National Golf Club with John Isner, which was booked for this week at the home of the Masters.
Sock will be indoors at the O2 Arena instead, and Berger had to make some new travel arrangements of his own.
Berger was not planning any late-season European travel when he decided to leave his post in June as head of men’s tennis at the United States Tennis Association player development program. His goal was to improve his own golf game and watch his son play — Daniel Berger is a two-time winner on the PGA Tour and was part of this year’s winning Presidents Cup team from the United States.Instead, Berger got a call in June from Sock, who met Berger as a teenager and was looking for help after splitting with his longtime coach Troy Hahn.
“I think I understand Jack,” Berger said. “And really from the first time I saw him play, I really believed in him. I know in my bones he’s a great player, so I told him I would certainly help him out. I did not hesitate.”
Now, all in a rush, Berger, once a top-10 player himself, is working with another top-10 player.“It’s not a late-season surge; it’s a one-tournament surge,” said Brad Gilbert, a coach and ESPN analyst.
But the platform for the big rankings leap was built in the first three months of 2017, when Sock won titles in Auckland, New Zealand, and Delray Beach, Fla., and then lost to Federer in the semifinals of the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells, Calif., and to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Masters 1000 tournament in Miami.But soon after Sock made the long trip to Australia and back in April to play in a losing effort for the United States Davis Cup team, his season turned into a struggle.
“He was playing at a super-high level, and then we got overextended a bit in the scheduling,” said Mike Wolf, Sock’s longtime mentor in Overland Park, Kan., who remains part of his coaching team. “He had to take kind of a breather, which was somewhat on us. We had him play too much and then he got hurt.”
Sock injured a knee training on grass at the Queen’s Club before Wimbledon but played in the Grand Slam event anyway, losing in the second round. He also attributed his midseason difficulties to lost confidence and personal issues he did not want to discuss in public.“Mental stuff on and off the court,” Sock said. “Just normal life stuff.”
He is in a happier place now, traveling in Asia and Europe this autumn with his girlfriend, Michala Burns, a former tennis player at Palm Beach Atlantic University.“There can be some lonely and down moments on tour for sure,” Sock said. “So to have someone that obviously cares about me and I care about her, it definitely helps.”
Sock has an unusual look for a top tennis player with his chinstrap beard. On court, he is an uncommon mix of brute force in the backcourt and feathery touch in the forecourt; his rugged frame belies his remarkable foot speed. He also has his rackets strung at an extraordinarily low tension, sometimes under 40 pounds.