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Confident Sock ready for claycourt tilt

By Matthew Trollope   on   Sunday 14 May 2017
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He's the best American player on clay - and now the American No.1, with a career-high ranking of 14th. Jack Sock loves clay from the beginning, when he played junior tournaments in the United States on green Har-Tru clay. Two years after a four-sets thriller against Rafael Nadal in the round of 16, he's back in Paris "to do some serious damage on the clay.”

The tennis world had long been aware of Jack Sock – a highly-rated American who was a US Open junior champion – when he arrived at Roland-Garros two years ago ahead of what would be his best campaign in Paris to date.

Making him more noteworthy was the fact that unlike his compatriots, he expressed a love for clay. In his first ever professional outing on the surface, at an ITF Futures event in Amelia Island in 2009, he won the tournament for his first title. His first ATP crown similarly came on clay, at Houston in 2015.

Yet until that year, Sock had, outside of America at least, essentially been a non-factor. He only contested all four Grand Slam main draws in a single season for the first time in 2014 and never appeared in a clay court Masters main draw until the following year.

So when he bulldozed through to the last 16 at Roland-Garros in 2015 – his best ever Grand Slam result – and lined up opposite Rafael Nadal on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, a much wider audience were finally getting a good look at the Nebraskan.

They would have liked what they saw. Sock was initially overwhelmed by the legendary Spaniard, falling behind two sets to love and a break in the third. Yet the factors that saw him earn praise as he emerged on the circuit – the lashing, heavy forehand, nimble court coverage, athleticism and gritty competitiveness, not unlike Nadal – helped him snatch the third set.

Sock, the only player to take a set from Nadal in the Spaniard’s first four rounds in Paris that year, eventually went down in four. Yet the world caught a glimpse of just how dangerous Sock could be on his favourite surface.

Nadal vs Sock, Roland-Garros 2015: the highlights

R. Nadal v. J. Sock Men's Highlights / 4th Round

Fast forward two years and Sock is an ever bigger threat, perhaps poised for his greatest claycourt season yet.

“I playing well, I’m playing confident. I’ll be going into the clay season probably the most confident I’ve been,” Sock told . “If I can keep playing this level of tennis and keep improving on the court with things, then I can hopefully do some serious damage on the clay.”

The 24-year-old currently sits at world No.15, just down from a career-high ranking of 14th set earlier in April. His confidence has stemmed from a purple patch beginning in late 2016; he matched his Roland-Garros fourth-round effort in 2015 with a run to the last 16 in New York then made back-to-back Masters quarterfinals in Shanghai and Paris, his best results at that level. Sandwiched in between those Masters campaigns was a final appearance in Stockholm.

Season 2017 began just as productively. Sock won titles in Auckland and Delray Beach while reaching the semifinals at Indian Wells and quarterfinals in Miami. He has won 35 of his past 47 matches and since the beginning of US Open 2016 – when he was ranked No.27 – he has almost halved his ranking.

All of these performances have come on hard courts, another surface Sock enjoys. He first learned the game on a fast indoor hard court but it was when he moved to Kansas City at age 11 and linked up with Mike Wolf that he learned the forehand that would become such a potent weapon on the dirt.

“When I went to him I was basically hitting underspin on my forehand, and he taught me what topspin was. I had no idea. And then from then on he just kind of left it (alone),” Sock explained. “Many people have asked him – how did you teach Jack the forehand? And he says it was just natural feel, he just let me run with it, and whatever felt normal, I just did.”

In the stats, Sock wasn't far behind Nadal on winners: the American had 31 to Rafa's 34.

Sock says he loved clay from the beginning when he played junior tournaments in the United States on green Har-Tru clay, the surface on which he triumphed in Amelia Island and later at ATP level in Houston.

Nevertheless, ”the first time I went over there and played on the “true” red stuff it was incredible,” Sock said. (People back home were) a little surprised I think at the beginning (when I made the fourth round at Roland-Garros in 2015). We don’t have the best track record as of late over there. But I’ve also stated many times that I love clay and I enjoy being over there, and I love the French Open – the courts are so good.”

Now far more aware of the rising American two years on from his French breakthrough, fans in Paris and beyond will no doubt monitor his progress with interest as he builds towards Roland-Garros glory in 2017.

As the first opponent to deprive the King of a set this tournament, Jack Sock, ranked 37, can be satisfied with his performance.
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