I am an American, and I am a fan of tennis. That does not mean that I am, therefore, a fan of American tennis. It’s a seemingly obvious statement, but one that continues to elude the majority of tennis media, particularly the networks that broadcast tournaments. I will not name names; if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
That being said, when I am asked about tennis outside of work by the sport’s casual followers, I get one question more—way more—than any other. It’s not about when Roger Federer or Serena Williams will retire; it’s not about whether Rafael Nadal can hold off Novak Djokovic yet again at Roland Garros. It is this:
What’s wrong with American men’s tennis?
So while I am not a direct supporter of U.S. players—or any particular player, for that matter—there are many others who follow the sport based on the flags, rather than the names. To me, that’s a bit unfortunate, for they are the most overplayed and least significant attribute of a tennis player’s worth. If I ever become commissioner of tennis, the first thing I’ll do is order those flags removed from TV broadcasts, and country abbreviations stricken from draw sheets.
That’s just my opinion, of course. I’m sure many of you share the opposing view, and of that segment which cheers on men’s players from the United States, I have one piece of advice for you:
The only player who really matters right now is Jack Sock.
That’s not because Sock is the final American man left at Roland Garros, but that doesn’t hurt his cause. Steve Johnson ran into a man named Stan in the third round and fell in straights, leaving Sock to carry the flag that’s digitized next to his name. The usual U.S. suspects gave their usual performances at a Slam, meaning Sam Querrey bowed out early (first round) and John Isner disappointed (he went home a round later). The disparity between Isner’s play at Masters tournaments and majors is astonishing—he’s reached six Masters semis and two finals, but has reached the fourth round of a Slam just three times—yet it simply underscores the fact that best-of-five set play is an entirely different game for the 6’10” serving star.
The man Querrey lost to, 18-year-old Borna Coric, is who Sock will face in his next match. It should be a fantastic third-rounder—check out Steve Tignor’s thoughts on it here—featuring two young, charismatic talents that could be in the upper reaches of the sport in the next few years. The winner will most likely play Rafael Nadal, so there’s that at stake, too.
But win or lose, Sock will emerge from this tournament, and the first five months of 2015, as the clear American player of interest. It’s hard to imagine that would have been the case at the beginning of the year, with Sock missing the first two months of the season due to hip surgery. But almost immediately, the 22-year-old rediscovered the form which saw him finish 2014 inside the Top 50. He reached the round of 16 at Indian Wells, then turned in a third-round performance in Miami (with no byes at either event). He then won his first ATP title shortly after in Houston, where he edged out Querrey in two tiebreakers.
“It feels incredible,” said Sock after the final. “Clay is my favourite surface.”
Europe’s red clay would slow Sock’s momentum; he went just 1-3 in singles heading into Roland Garros. But all of his losses came in three sets, and two came against Top 15 players—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Madrid and Gilles Simon in Rome.
But Sock still managed to get his socks dirty on clay thanks to his affinity and prowess in doubles. His out-of-nowhere Wimbledon win last summer with first-time partner Vasek Pospisil was hard to explain; they even beat the legendary Bryan brothers in the final. But once their success continued with a title in Atlanta and runner-up finish in Cincinnati, it became clear that Sock has a gift for doubles, with feel and placement that complements his power and intensity.
Sock and Pospisil went on to win Indian Wells this spring, and nearly pulled off the March double in Miami before falling to the Bryans in the final, 6-3, 1-6, 10-8. After a quarterfinal showing with Pospisil in Madrid, Sock then teamed with fellow rising star Nick Kyrgios in Rome and reached the semis.
“I really think the success that Rockum Sock has had in doubles has given him a ton of confy (Editor: confidence) that is lifting his singles to another level,” Brad Gilbert aka @bgtennisnation wrote on Twitter.
What Sock appears to feel most confident about, however, is his forehand. It’s another one of his tennis gifts. Check it out in slow motion, regular speed, and read what some people are saying about it:
Graphic on @TennisChannel showed that Jack Sock's RPM of topspin on the forehand is more than Rafa Nadal - 3178 to 3095— Randy Walker (@TennisPublisher) March 17, 2015
Jimmy Arias believes Jack Sock has the quickest racket head speed on the forehand of anyone other than Rafa.— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) April 12, 2014
Is Sock’s forehand as game-changing a shot as Isner’s serve? No, because Isner can win points before they really even begin, and negate so much of what his opponent can do with just one swing. But as we’re seeing in Isner’s results at Slams, the 30-year-old doesn’t have much of a backup plan.
I admire what Isner has been able to accomplish on tour: Coming from college to become a fixture in the Top 20, improving his movement, backhand, and return, and developing a baseline presence that, at times, has stood up to the best competition out there. When I spent some time with Isner in Indian Wells for a TENNIS Magazine cover story three years ago, it was obvious how much effort he puts into his craft.
But despite Isner’s height advantage, the ceiling for Sock seems higher, and it’s largely because of his atomic forehand. I was impressed by it when I watched him play in person last year in Newport, but I was even more impressed when he used it to dictate—and then terminate—a critical rally in his second-rounder against Pablo Carreno Busta. The Spaniard is a fine player, but looked minor league once Sock got a grip of the 4-3 point in the fourth-set tibreaker. Two points later, Sock backed up his first-round upset of Grigor Dimitrov to reach the third round of Roland Garros for the second straight year.
"It was a match I had to win,” Sock said. “It wasn't going to be given to me, by any means.”
It will only get more difficult for Sock in Paris, as well as on tour, with his ever-increasing profile. And it will be fascinating to see how he handles it.
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