The next time Roger Federer faces Jack Sock — and surely they will play each other in many prestigious tournaments in the coming years — their match might be suspenseful. Federer, the 18-time Grand Slam champion, might lose a service game or even a set to Sock, the 24-year-old from Nebraska whose results are beginning to justify the hype that for years has positioned him as the next great hope in American men's tennis.
Someday, Federer and Sock will fight long and hard in front of fans whose withheld breath becomes a unique noise. And one of those days, Federer might bow his head in tribute to a triumphant Sock.
Saturday wasn't that day.
Federer needed only 21 minutes to break Sock's serve twice and win the first set of their semifinal Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open. Although Sock regained his composure and got to deuce on one of Federer's service games in the second set— no one has broken Federer's serve here — the outcome was inevitable. Federer's 6-1, 7-6(4) victory at Stadium 1 launched him into Sunday's final against Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka, a familiar foe.
"Roger, we all know him, so nothing to say," a smiling Wawrinka said after he defeated Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain, 6-3, 6-2, in Saturday's first semifinal.
Actually, there's plenty to say about Federer, who emerged from the "Group of Death" in the bottom quarter of the draw. Mainly that it's not so far-fetched to say that Federer, now ranked 10th in the world, could become No. 1 again if he can sustain this level while top-ranked Andy Murray recovers from an elbow injury and No. 2 Novak Djokovic tries to steady his inconsistent game.
Federer, 35, got help here when Nick Kyrgios was too ill to play their scheduled quarterfinal match Friday, but Federer hasn't gotten this far by accident or the kindness of strangers. He withstood the booming serves of Steve Johnson to win two tiebreakers in their third-round match and he defeated longtime rival Rafael Nadal in the fourth round in straight sets. He kept that up by blitzing Sock in the first set Saturday.
"That first one got away from me pretty quick," Sock said. "I think he's been doing that to players pretty consistently this year."
There's no shame for Sock in losing a set to Federer. There's every reason to respect Sock for displaying a competitiveness the crowd recognized and loved. Sock got a sense of what it takes to be in the match against a great player, not merely on the court. That could be a valuable lesson for Sock, who's ranked 18th in the world.
"The second set was more like what I expected the first set to be, to be quite honest, before the match," Federer said. "It was hard to break and return well off Jack's heavy serve then just maybe see if there was an opening that never really came. I maybe dropped my level just a bit, as well, as he lifted his."
Federer relied on his second serve to get to the tiebreaker. "I'm happy it was there, because I didn't serve particularly well in that second set," said Federer, who had two mini-breaks in the tiebreak to one for Sock, and clinched a place in the final against Wawrinka after Sock sent a backhand into the net on Federer's first match point.
Federer has a 19-3 edge in career head-to-head matches against Wawrinka, including a five-set victory in the Australian Open semifinals this year. In addition, Federer has won three straight and six of the last seven encounters against the man he teamed up with to win the Olympic doubles gold medal at Beijing in 2008.
Wawrinka dodged danger a couple of times in this tournament, saving two match points in the fourth round against Yoshihito Nishioka before winning a third-set tiebreak, and going to a third-set tiebreak against Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals. But Wawrinka got little resistance Saturday from Carreno Busta.
"The last few years I know that I lost some matches because of, most of the time, attitude. I was too tough with myself, a little bit too negative. That's why, too much up and down," Wawrinka said. "This year it was not easy. I had a tough one against Nishioka. I still came through by fighting, by trying to stay positive."
Federer remembered the first time he met Wawrinka, then a promising junior player who wanted to hit with him at the Swiss national tennis center in Biel. Wawrinka stayed well behind the baseline then, and although Federer was impressed with the kid's backhand he thought Wawrinka's game was limited. "I have been mighty impressed how he's made his game grow, because I thought forever he'd be just a clay court guy," Federer said. "I'm his No. 1 fan when it comes to his success and how he's been able to do it."
At least until they face each other Sunday.