Jack Climbs the Beanstalk

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

PARIS—Allow me to go out on a limb here: The future of American tennis is locked up in the right arm of a 20-year-old kid who stands 6’1”, but is built on the platform of a pick-up truck rather than a sedan. He’s a Midwesterner who bleeds Nebraska red and packs an atomic serve. And no, I’m not fantasizing about the return of Andy Roddick. I’m talking about that other Cornhusker, Jack Sock.

Today at Roland Garros, Sock, who qualified for the main draw, knocked off Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2, 7-5. That’s the same Garcia-Lopez who knows a thing or two about playing on clay, and waxed Sock (6-4, 6-2) just two weeks ago in the first round of the Bordeaux Challenger.

So what’s the big deal, you ask? Doesn’t everyone play a lights out match now and then?

Well, yes. But this match generated a different kind of feeling, a special feeling, which is not necessarily a true or accurate analysis of anything. But it points to a door and challenges you to open it, or become one of those people who end up saying things like, “I knew he’d be great, I just never said anything to anyone about it. But honest, I knew!”

Furthermore, there were numerous elements in the way Sock won suggesting that this was anything but one of those one-hour and 58-minute sojourns in the mythic zone to which every player is entitled now and then. Garcia-Lopez trotted out the wiles he’s accumulated through his many years on tour. The 29-year-old spent a fair amount of time getting in the face of service line judges and challenged numerous calls. He took a long bathroom break after he lost the second set. Then there was a lengthy rain delay. The match began at 1:52 in the afternoon and didn't end until Sock blasted an inside-out forehand approach winner off a Garcia-Lopez serve return at 5:19.There was nothing Veni, vedi, vici about this one if you look beyond the scoreline.

Sock emerged on Court 3 under sodden skies, and for a moment you could have mistaken him for a Swedish Davis Cup star. He’s as broad and muscular as some of those boys, and he was clothed in a bright blue, yellow, and white kit that lent a welcome, cheery note on this otherwise miserable day.

By contrast, Garcia-Lopez cut a conservative, almost somber image in crisp black shorts and a white shirt with just a few touches of color. Most Spanish players either look like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog model or a drummer in a garage band. Garcia-Lopez looks like he could be an insurance claims adjuster.

Of course, none of that matters once the ball is in play, and from the onset Sock played with remarkable, explosive energy. He broke serve in the third game of the first set, and again in the fifth. He suffered a slight lapse in the second set, surrendering a break in the second game, but he earned it back in the fifth game when he crushed a cross-court forehand winner on his fourth re-break point. The next game might have been the key to the match. Sock trailed 15-40 but recovered to hold and consolidate the break—after which he broke Gracia-Lopez again, punctuating the game with a resounding shout of “Yeah!”

Sock served out the set, and then slumped in his chair, zoning out, while Garcia-Lopez wandered off to find the men’s room. It might not have been very wise for Sock to just sit there resting during the delay, but it had no ill effect. He held the first game of the third set,and appeared to deliver a killing blow when he broke Garcia-Lopez for a 2-1 lead. But the skies opened up, and put the match on hold for an hour and 20 minutes.

So, for the second time on this dreary day, Garcia-Lopez was given an opportunity to re-group. Sock picked up right where he’d left off, but wasn’t quite able to avoid a near crisis when Garcia-Lopez broke back for 3-all and held his next service game. Sock was in danger of falling behind 3-5 twice in the next game, but coolly served an ace and a service winner to get back to deuce and then won the game. After a pair of holds, he broke Garcia-Lopez again for 6-5, and played another strong game to win the match.

I went through chapter and verse here partly to show how well Sock managed the match, and to highlight one of his great, unteachable strengths—the relish and relaxed spirit with which he competes. “Playing main-draw matches helps, and playing in front of crowds and playing in big matches definitely helps, getting them all under your belt,” Sock said afterward. I like playing in front of people, I like the big stages. I mean, the more the merrier. And, yeah, it’s fun.”

“Fun?” Doesn’t this guy know about how Americans are supposed to feel about clay, or share the grim resolve with which most pros compete?

Despite those big weapons, and having developed his game far from red clay on any continent, Sock is having a ball during this, his first trip to Paris. He’s chosen to eat at a familiar Chipotle chain restaurant six nights out of the past ten, but he’s one of the very few Americans who share former champ Jim Courier’s affection and taste for this clay—conventional wisdom and pundits be damned.

“I grew up, didn’t play a whole lot on it,” Sock said. “But I loved playing on it when I did. Coming over here and playing on the real stuff has been great. I'll always look forward to coming back here. I feel comfortable and confident on the clay. Hopefully I can keep it going.”

Courier didn’t grow up on clay either, and like Sock his game was predicated on the big forehand. I caught up with Courier, a two-time champ here and a former No. 1, during the rain delay, and he said of Sock: “He has three great weapons—that serve, the forehand, and his speed. He’s still a little raw, but he has tremendous upside.”

“Raw” shouldn’t be mistaken here for one-dimensional. For the most impressive aspect of Sock’s win, besides the competitive gusto that goads him into going just as big as the opportunity before him, was how many things he does well besides serve, hit the forehand, and run. He has great feel; he sweetly fielded some sizzling Garcia-Lopez shots in rallies, bunting the ball back to change the pace and direction. He also hit numerous kick first serves, explaining:

“No matter who I’m playing usually, feel like I have a pretty good feel, especially on the ad side of getting the kick out wide. Then I’m able to set up to hopefully hit forehand on the first ball. And then especially on the clay where it gets up more, and then a guy with a onie (one-handed backhand) even more so. It was definitely part of the game plan but also just part of my game in general.”

Indeed. Court 3 is one of the smaller venues here, and Sock drove Guillermo-Lopez so far back and off the court that he literally had the linespeople behind him crouching and shielding their faces—I kid you not. And once on the north end, poor Garcia-Lopez hit a cement pole outside the court with his frame as he tried to reach a Sock kicker.

It’s hard to rationalize a quantum leap of the kind Sock seems to have taken, and it’s legitimate to ask if it can last. After all, this kid won a match on Houston, then did absolutely nothing. He had four straight-set losses in Challengers, ending with that defeat to Garcia-Lopez in Bordeaux.

But after that setback, top American youngsters Denis Kudla, Steve Johnson, and Sock put in 10 days of intense training under the tutelage the head of USTA men’s tennis, Jay Berger.

“It was an unbelievable period,” Berger told me after Sock’s match. “They really embraced the work and did all the right things. They have an incredible spirit, and have great camaraderie—especially the young guys. Denis Kudla (who qualified but lost in the first round of the main draw) pulled out a match in qualifying, 15-13 in the third. Every time he looked over to the sideline, he saw a bunch of the Americans watching and pulling for him, and over there Ryan Harrison was tweeting about it like crazy. So they’re all feeding off each other, and coming to understand that it’s all about the process.”

Making it as a pro is a little like climbing a beanstalk that disappears into the clouds overhead; you have to go carefully, hand-over-hand. The process is, almost by definition, a time-consuming effort that demands great patience and faith. But one sign of a player destined for great things is that the process fast-forwards for him a few times in his developmental years, and that seemed to be exactly what happened during a rainy day in Paris.

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