If you needed a visual metaphor for Jack Sock’s season before this week, this clip of him getting hit in the tender parts at Australian Open qualifying fits the bill. The U.S. prospect, 20, spent the last four months of 2012 building momentum after making the third round at the U.S. Open and the finals of two ATP Challengers, winning in Tiburon, Calif.
Ranked a career-high No. 149 to start 2013, Sock should have been primed for a strong early hard-court season, especially after a long winter training block that saw him skip the USTA’s Australian Open wild-card playoff. Instead, Sock left Australia without a win, and lost in the first round in San Jose last week. He came to Memphis this week with an 0-3 record.
It looks like he’s finally kick started his year. Granted a U.S. Indoor Championships wild card, Sock shocked Milos Raonic 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 in the first round and beat James Blake 7-5, 6-4 to make his second ATP quarterfinal (he lost 6-4, 6-3 to Feliciano Lopez).
“I just outgrinded [Blake] a little bit,” Sock told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I’ve been trying to be physical out there, get a lot of balls back. Speed is one of my strengths and I try to use my speed and get as many balls back as I can and then kind of turn it into offense.”
Regardless of his progress over the weekend, Sock will again reach a career-high ranking on Monday.
He may be 16th on the American depth chart, but he may be at the top of the list when it comes to potential. Sock has already proven he knows how to win, despite a young resume of just eight ATP Tour match victories.
It was hard to ignore the parallels when Sock became the first American to win the U.S. Open junior title since Andy Roddick in 2010. “I think we’re the only two teenagers to play tennis in Nebraska in the last 30 years,” joked Roddick, born in Omaha. As with Roddick, Sock’s game was defined by a big serve and forehand combination. As it so happens, the two faced off in the second round of the 2011 U.S. Open. Roddick won 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 under the Arthur Ashe Stadium lights. Sock, 18 at the time, had just scored his first tour-level win in the first round and acquitted himself well against Roddick. It was an expected result but an unexpected performance from Sock, who played with great poise on a big stage.
A week and a half later, Sock became a unlikely Slam champion, in mixed doubles with Melanie Oudin. Granted wild cards into the tournament, the teens took out the No. 1 seeded American team of Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber en route to the crown. Sock is pretty darn good at winning, whether it be a junior title, Slam title or the four state championships he helped (Overland, Kan.) Blue Valley North High School win (Sock went 80-0 in his prep career).
Regardless of his track record, it’s easy to be seduced by the hype because he has precisely the kind of game that can win on tour. While both Ryan Harrison and Donald Young get knocked for their tendency toward defensiveness and lack of consistent power — at times driven by tactics rather than strength — Sock is American tennis. He hits big, he serves big and he wants to be aggressive. He’s similar to Sam Querrey in many ways, with a booming serve and forehand, yet has already shown better hands and movement as when Querrey was his age.
In a country so desperate for any sign of hope, the patience afforded Sock has been good. He’s been able to work outside of the spotlight and without the burden of expectation (he can thank Harrison and Young for that). Despite his results in Memphis, Sock will still be ranked outside the cut-off for most ATP tournaments and could be relegated to the Challenger circuit, at least until the summer hard courts, where he’ll likely be granted wild cards into ATP tournaments. For now, Sock’s Memphis run — he outlasted John Isner, Querrey and Harrison — is giving us a lot to look forward to.