As the French Open gets set to begin, the biggest American tennis news on the men’s side has nothing to do with an active player. Fans are buzzing after 2016 champion Novak Djokovic announced last week that Andre Agassi, an eight-time Grand Slam champion and the 1999 winner at Roland Garros, will be coaching him in Paris.
A coaching announcement outweighing the talk surrounding players who are competing is just the latest reminder of America’s lack of a men’s tennis superstar in recent years. Agassi was the last American to win the French Open, and it has been nearly 14 years since Andy Roddick last raised a Grand Slam crown for the country at the U.S. Open in 2003.
Roddick probably didn’t know that not only would he not win another major during his Hall of Fame career, but that well over a decade later, Americans – who had won at least one Slam every year from 1989 until 2003 – would still be searching for their next great men’s champion.
But in his second to last U.S. Open in 2011, Roddick played a fellow Nebraskan in an ordinary second round win. He gave a kid who attended public high school in Kansas (and also played for its team, which is rare for world class tennis talent) a beat down.
That kid was Jack Sock.
“It was my first time out on Arthur Ashe [Stadium], playing on TV. I mean that was Friday night under the lights so for me it was a very surreal moment,” Sock, who idolized Roddick growing up, says. “His game was obviously much, much better that day. But it was a surreal moment for me, just taking it all in.”
Now Sock isn’t just participating in such moments, but creating them. Slowly but surely the 24-year-old has made his way up the rankings, cracking the world’s top 15 last month. And while most believe he will not make a run to championship weekend at this French Open, the forehand-lacing Sock is a realistic threat to play well into the second week of Paris’ Grand Slam, something American fans have not been able to say in years.
“I love being on the clay,” Sock says. “It feels very comfortable to me…my game translates [to the surface], too.”
The game that Sock refers to is spearheaded by one of the most dynamic and dangerous shots in all of tennis: the American’s forehand.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) May 18, 2017
If that forehand in Rome against French Open favorite Rafael Nadal was not impressive, don’t worry. He’ll unload on plenty of them when he steps onto Roland Garros’ terre battue, where Sock achieved what is still a career-best result at a Grand Slam in 2015 by reaching the fourth round.
“Jack’s game is perfect for clay,” says former world number one and two-time French Open champion Jim Courier, who serves as the United States’ Davis Cup captain. “He moves exceptionally well and has more time to get around and whack his forehand on clay than on faster surfaces.”
Sock has also done pretty well on faster surfaces. In fact, the 15th-ranked player in the world had arguably the best month of his career in March on hard courts, reaching the semifinals of an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event for the first time in Indian Wells, before making the quarterfinals in Miami.
The American, who first burst onto the scene by winning the 2010 U.S. Open Boys’ Singles title as a wild card, won two medals in Rio last summer: a gold in mixed doubles and bronze in men’s doubles. He also earned his first top 10 singles win at a Slam at the U.S. Open. And while Courier says Sock’s next step will be breaking through at a major (he expects Sock to reach a quarterfinal or semifinal this year), the big-hitting, nimble Sock has not taken that step just yet.
“I continue to point out that if he wants to get into the top ten, where we all think he belongs, he needs to work professionally every day, like the guys at the top,” Courier says. “He has improved a lot in that department in the last year. When you’re young on tour and having success it’s easy to get complacent and Jack is doing a good job of avoiding that trap.”
In the last couple of years, Sock has worked to avoid that complacency, even if it took one of the toughest experiences in his life to do so.
Sock’s older brother Eric, who finished a four-year-career playing Division I tennis at the University of Nebraska in 2013, was hospitalized for three weeks in January of 2015 with Lemierre’s Syndrome. The throat infection nearly killed Eric, who needed a ventilator to breathe for eight days. While Eric recovered, Jack’s perspective on life and his career immediately changed.
“I saw him start working harder,” Eric says. “When you see somebody close to you go through something like that it probably opens your eyes a little bit, makes you appreciate just what you have.”
Sock broke into the top 30 for the first time that June, and since that August, he has not fallen out of it. Now, with Olympic medals, a top 15 ranking and a video game-like forehand in his back pocket, Sock is ready to continue chasing his ultimate goal: being the top men’s tennis player of the world.
“As a kid everyone has dreams of winning their ultimate tournament and being number one in the world,” Sock says. “I’ve had that confidence now for a few years that I can definitely get there one day.”