These days, when I see Jack Sock walking from one side of the court to the other, with his baseball hat high on his head and a wry smile on his face, the words “ambling into history” come to my mind. That’s the title of a biography of George W. Bush by Frank Bruni, but the phrase fits Sock’s style these days. His gait may be ambling, but more and more it looks like he’s going to use it to walk straight into U.S. tennis history.
Friday at Indian Wells was a day of firsts, in a year of firsts, for Sock. The 24-year-old recorded his first win over a Top 5 player, Kei Nishikori, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2—he was 0-7 against the cream of the tour coming in. That victory sent Sock to his first Masters 1000 semifinal, at the BNP Paribas Open. In 2017, Sock has already won two tournaments, cracked the Top 20 for the first time and cemented his new position as the No. 1 American on the men’s side. Since Andy Roddick retired in 2012, we’ve been searching for the future of U.S. men’s tennis. It’s looking more and more like Sock, a year after making a fake run for president, is going to throw his hat in the ring for that imaginary position as well.
“There’s a nice confidence boost from that,” Sock said this week about becoming the No. 1 American. “But also on the flip side of that, for American tennis in general, hopefully it’s not at 18 [his current ranking], where I am now. Hopefully it’s kind of like it was back in the day, Top 10, Top 5.”
Watching Sock against the world’s fifth-ranked player on Friday, the only thing you could say is: Why not? In the first and third sets, Sock was the dominant force. He said he knew he couldn’t let Nishikori move forward—“then it’s going to be trouble for me”—and he didn’t. Sock overpowered Kei with his first serve, sent him scrambling 10 feet wide of the sideline with his kick second serve, pushed him backward with his heavy topspin forehand and then—most vicious of all—finished half a dozen rallies with perfectly measured drop shots and drop volleys. Sock, as he showed on Friday, has skills.
Still, “brute force” is the term that’s usually used to describe his game, and it’s his explosiveness that elevates him. The 6’3” Nebraska native may have the livest arm in tennis; he doesn’t even need to take a full swing to make the ball dive-bomb with topspin. Sock has some of the fastest wheels as well, which allow him to run around and hit more forehands than just about anyone else. Those wheels also help him coming forward. He doesn’t just get to drop shots; he gets to them in time to take them with topspin forehands. He doesn’t just rush the net; he gets close enough to it that he can win the point with the simplest of bunted volleys. The speed sets up the skills.
We’ve known most of that for a while now; what’s been different this week is his head. Sock has always had a tendency to go on walkabout during matches, to lose concentration or get negative after a bad game or two, to take the long road rather than the shortest path to victory. It seemed as if he didn’t quite know how good he could be, or make himself believe that he belonged with the game’s best.
The dips in concentration haven’t magically vanished. All four of Sock’s wins in Indian Wells this week have come in three sets, and he’s taken nine hours to get to the semifinals. In his opener, he lost a 6-0 second set to Henri Laaksonen. But it was his next match, against Grigor Dimitrov, that was different. These were two of the season’s hottest players, and because of that their meeting felt a little more important than it otherwise might. Which of them was the real threat?
For most of the night, it looked to be Dimitrov. He led by a break in the third, and reached match point four times. But Sock never got negative when he was behind, and he showed a lot of fire down the stretch. Most important, he zeroed in on Dimitrov’s fatal flaw, his one-handed backhand, and exploited it relentlessly. Sock’s win, 9-7 in a third-set tiebreaker, wasn’t about shot-making prowess; it was about winning, period. And he’s played the same way since.
Sock knows that the next step for him will take place upstairs.
“I’ve had a handful of Top 10 wins now and last year,” Sock said. “I think right there, tennis-wise, I’m right there. I think they just don’t lack anything mentally. They don’t give up anything mentally, and I think that’s where—you know, that will be the deal-breaker for me. Trying to do a lot better job this year.
“I think that’s where I’ll see the breakthrough past those top, top guys.”
Sock made the first of those breakthroughs against Nishikori. His level dropped in the second set, but he found his energy again in the third. Up 3-1, with a chance at a second break, he tightened up a little and let four break points get away from him. In the past, he might have gone for broke in frustration and thrown that game away. This time he stayed in it, kept giving himself chances and eventually broke with an inside-out forehand that even the speedy Nishikori didn’t have a prayer of tracking down.
On Saturday, Sock will try his luck against another top guy, Roger Federer. That may be the end of his road in Indian Wells; Federer, for one thing, has played six fewer hours this week. But by Monday, Sock will have ambled a little farther up the rankings ladder. Who knows? By the end of the year, he may be playing for history.
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