Is it something in the water? Or those broad plains of the Great Plains, the summerlong humidity, those winds—”when the nets would stand out stiff as proud flags,” in the words of David Foster Wallace, “and an errant ball would blow clear to the easternmost fence, interrupting play on the next several courts”?
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What can be said without equivocation is that Nebraska, not normally considered a hotbed of tennis (even Wallace, though he was referencing the same geography, had Illinois on his mind when he wrote the above), has given the men’s pro-tennis tour two of the finest players of this youngish century. The first was Andy Roddick, who remains the last American to achieve the number-one spot in the Association of Tennis Professionals world rankings (for three months in late 2003 and early 2004).
And the second? That’s twenty-four-year-old Lincoln native Jack Sock, who assumed the mantle of the next great American hope earlier this year by winning two ATP tournaments (in New Zealand and Florida) and rising as high as number fourteen in the world.
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“It is awesome. How many players can say they’re the best in their country? But it’s not a goal I ever thought about,” Sock says. Tennis is a global community, and plenty of his forebears—Yanks named Connors, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi, and Courier—set the bar much higher. “The goal for the top American isn’t the top twenty—it’s top ten, top five, number one in the world.”
That’s a tall order, but his timing is good. The Big Four who’ve dominated the game for the past decade—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray—”aren’t winning as regularly as they used to,” Sock says. “It just takes one of us to break through, and selfishly, I hope it’s me.”
Selfishness is the aspect that has taken some getting used to. “I can count on one hand and maybe a couple of fingers on another the number of players I’ll keep in touch with after my playing career is over,” he says, naming fellow Americans John Isner and Donald Young and Australian upstart Nick Kyrgios. “Everyone’s friendly, but at the end of the day, we’re all trying to beat each other.”
Sock grew up a Roddick fan (“being from Nebraska, it was hard not to be, plus I liked the Reebok Pumps and visor and the Backstreet Boys frosted tips”), although, like his hero, he developed his game mostly away from the Cornhusker State. When he was ten, his parents found a coach three hours from home. Every weekend, his mother drove Sock and his older brother, Eric, to a motel in Overland Park, Kansas, so that the boys could play in clinics.
“We alternated private lessons each weekend, then were back in school the next morning,” he says. This, perhaps, makes Nebraska something like the Velvet Underground of tennis origins: Not many people played there, but a significant percentage of those who did moved away, developed an unorthodox but explosive shot somewhere else, and went on to win the US Open Juniors (Roddick in 2000 and Sock in 2010).
Roddick’s game-changing weapon was his serve, once clocked at the record speed of 155 miles per hour. If Sock eventually wins major titles, his forehand is what will get him there. Christopher Clarey of The New York Times described it as “one of the most remarkable shots in the game: a wicked, whipping stroke hit with such an extreme western grip that it just might be creeping full-circle toward eastern.” That means he swings the racket with his right hand positioned so far over to the right that, at the point of contact, his elbow leads the way and the racket head cranks over the ball at an otherworldly pace. That, in turn, generates a degree of topspin perhaps not achieved by anyone save the great Nadal.
Sock took a set from Nadal in the round of sixteen of the 2015 French Open and then had him on the rails in the quarterfinals in Beijing later that year before succumbing. “Against Rafa or Roger or Novak, it’s about getting over that intimidation, believing you deserve a chance to take them out,” he says. “Experience is a massive factor.”
Especially when recent experience includes triumphs over top-ten players who are also in the ascendant generation: Kei Nishikori at Indian Wells in March, Dominic Thiem at the Paris Masters last November, Milos Raonic in Shanghai the previous month, and Marin Cilic at the 2016 US Open.
He’s earned his biggest hardware so far for victories in men’s doubles and mixed doubles, winning Wimbledon in the former (in 2014, with Canada’s Vasek Pospisil) and the US Open in the latter (in 2011, with countrywoman Melanie Oudin). He also brought home two Olympic medals from Rio last summer: the bronze in men’s doubles (with Steve Johnson) and the gold in mixed (with Bethanie Mattek-Sands).
“The coolest part was walking into the cafeteria at the American village with my medal on, and athletes coming up to me left and right,” Sock says. “For such a solitary game, to win as part of a doubles team and to represent the country—well, it felt amazing.”