Who Wants It?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 /by

Usually when a player demolishes a racquet, it’s after losing a crucial and particularly hard-fought point, or failing to break an opponent for the umpteenth time, or to express lingering resentment over a bit of poor officiating.  

Jack Sock didn’t smash his racquet for any of those reasons this afternoon. He did it because his U.S. Open was about to end with a retirement in the first round, and there was nothing he could do about it. He did it because he had hung in a hopeless situation as long as could reasonably be expected and failed to find a way out. He did it because something happened during his match against Pablo Andujar that injured his right leg, and he was hindered beyond salvation.

And so, when Andujar broke him to go up 5-1 in the third set, Sock positively destroyed his racquet on the hard court of the Grandstand. Racquet-smashing isn’t something to be condoned, but can be forgiven today, the mangled frame an apt, almost artistic metaphor for the American’s plight. One game later, after Andujar held to go up two sets to one, Sock shook his head, said something to himself (I think it was “not today”), and reluctantly ceded the match to the Spaniard. 

*****

I’m keeping tabs on a few American men in action at the U.S. Open today. At 21, Sock is the latest youngster to hop on the “Next Great American?” conveyor belt that all-too-often feeds into another belt that deposits its players into a bin with “Oh, Well” stenciled on the side.  

But, for the moment at least, there’s been reason to believe in Sock, currently ranked No. 55, who partnered with Canadian Vasek Pospisil to win the doubles title at Wimbledon this summer—in their debut, no less. Then, flying solo, Sock made the semis of both Atlanta and Newport.  

I join the Sock-Andujar match late in the second set. Jammed into a corridor, waiting for a changeover, a din of anticipation washes in from the Grandstand. Sock lost the first set, but is mounting a comeback in the second and is up 5-2. When I get out to my seat, Sock is soaked, his bright green Adidas t-shirt and white shorts clinging to his skin.

I caught a glimpse of the native Nebraskan at a Challenger event in Savannah, Georgia, in April and found his alpha aura off-putting in the modest setting of a suburban tennis club. But here in the big leagues, it feels just right: He comes out of his chair and saunters to the baseline to receive serve, his eagerness palpable. He goes for way too much in the return game, especially on the second point, on which he leaps into the air to pummel a return … right into the net, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Andujar holds and Sock steps up to serve for the set. On one point, he opens up his game, and it’s pure joy as he runs Andujar corner to corner then unloads on a forehand. He leans back, flashes a smile at the front row, and shakes his racquet as if to say, “how you like me now?”

Moments later, when Sock locks down the set, the decibel level (high) mocks the attendance level (low). There are more royal blue seatbacks than spectators visible in the stands, but Sock has the partisan crowd firmly behind him and thoroughly engrossed in the match. For a moment, it feels like something special might be brewing and thoughts of indelible Grandstand spectacles past (see Stakhovsky d. Harrison, 2010) come to mind.  

How quickly things turn: In the second game of the second set and down 0-1, Sock asks the chair umpire to call the trainer. He’s broken, and although the trainer hasn’t arrived, he takes his chair to wait. The medic emerges and works over Sock’s right leg, but back on court, he’s clearly hobbled: He doesn’t run for anything out of reach, and is quickly down 0-3.  

After the ensuing changeover, he takes to the service line, grits his teeth, and stares off in the distance. It looks like he believes he has a chance, and maybe even a plan, and it’s quickly clear that he intends to go down shooting. It works for one swift service game that goes by in a blur of aces and winners. But that’s it. Minutes later, when he’s broken again, he toasts that racquet and, one game after that, is out of the tournament.

I come to Sock’s match near the end of Sam Querrey’s five-set win over Maximo Gonzalez on Louis Armstrong Stadium, and afterwards I catch the third set of John Isner’s straight-sets dismissal of NCAA champ Marcos Giron on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Ironically, of them all, it’s Sock’s ill-fated fight that impresses me the most because it’s such a counterpoint to the almost matter-of-fact disposition of his compatriots. The contrast between Sock, in defeat, and Isner and Querrey, in victory, reminds me of something a friend once said after a Springsteen show: “We just saw as much emotion as you’d get in ten Sting concerts.”

Of course, one doesn’t have to be emotive to be a champion; many were left cold by Pete Sampras’ steely greatness. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Sock’s intense disappointment is a reflection of something positive, of an optimism and belief that has eluded those who came before him, both from themselves and from their fans.

Isner is already 29. It feels like it was just yesterday, but it’s been seven years since he emerged from the college ranks and announced himself in Washington, D.C., where he won five third-set tiebreakers en route to the final. Since then, he’s dipped in and out of the Top 20, reaching a career high of No. 9, and he’s notched wins over two of the Big Four—Federer and Djokovic—along the way. Still, there’s an underlying sense of something like resignation to Isner and to Querrey, now age 26, as well. Maybe it’s that they came of age in the shadow of the Big Four, an era in which Grand Slam titles have essentially proved a fantasy to all but a select few, with the added American burden of the search for the next male champion.  

For all our our 2014 U.S. Open coverage, including updated draws and video, go to our tournament page.

Sock, at least a half-generation behind Isner and Querrey, will mature in a time without the Big Four at their apex and without having played professionally in the shadow of Andy Roddick. Hard as it is to imagine, the world that he and those who come behind him inhabit will be populated by a new cast of characters, with a fresh crop of champions at the top of the pecking order. Sock may or may not claim a place at the top of that heap,  but he showed something today. He showed that he wants it, and maybe believes that he can have it.

I felt for Sock today, but it was refreshing to see such raw desire and disappointment, and if a racquet had to be sacrificed in the process, well, it was a small price to pay for the pleasure.

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