Is Jack Sock Emerging as New Hope for US Men's Tennis?

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2015

Jack Sock of the US returns a shot during their men's singles second round match against Kei Nishikori of Japan at the Shanghai Masters Tennis Tournament in Shanghai, China, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.  (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Vincent Thian/Associated Press

Men from the United States once ruled tennis with an iron grip. Between 1974 and 2003, American males accounted for 46 Grand Slam wins, dwarfing all other nations. But like most dynasties in history, they lost control of their throne and were toppled by players from other countries.

The forecast looked great during the 1970s and 1980s, which were led by the equally volatile and boisterous John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who won 15 major titles between them. And they weren't alone. During that era, countrymen like Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Roscoe Tanner, Vitas Gerulaitis, Brian Teacher and Michael Chang also took home their own Grand Slam hardware.

As Connors and McEnroe made their exit off the ATP Tour in the early 1990s, they gave way to a new generation of American stars: Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier.

Throughout that decade, those three would claim 21 of the 40 majors played. Courier won four in the span of eight Grand Slams between 1991 and 1993, but Sampras and Agassi soon passed him by. That duo would develop one of the most competitive and thrilling rivalries ever. 

Sampras, known for his lethal serve and cool demeanor, walked away in 2002 with 14 majors, a record which stood seven years. Agassi, the baseline demon and precocious talent, retired with eight Grand Slams.

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When big-hitting Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003 at age 21, it looked like the U.S. had its star for the next generation. No one could predict that victory would usher in a decade-long drought.

Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open
Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. OpenKATHY WILLENS/Associated Press/Associated Press

The U.S. men are currently riding an 0-45 streak in Grand Slams singles events. Only Roddick (2004-2005, 2009 Wimbledon and 2006 U.S. Open) has even reached the final of a major. Roddick and John Isner (2011 U.S. Open) are the last ones to go as far as the quarterfinals.

What was once a ripe tennis nation has turned barren.

While Isner, Donald Young, Sam Querrey and others have all tried to reignite the torch, none of them are talented enough to compete with the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic. 

But maybe all is not lost.

In 2015, one young American is beginning to inspire confidence and showing flashes of becoming a legitimate talent. His name is Jack Sock.

Sock, 22, won the first singles title of his career last week at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships. Being crowned on a surface which has confounded American men over the last decade was impressive enough. For the Nebraskan, however, that trophy arrived in just his third singles tournament of the year.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Last December, Sock underwent surgery after suffering an injury to his hip. That malady would sideline him for the Australian Open and beyond, but he finally made his return at Indian Wells. When he stepped on the court, there were few signs of rust.

In the California desert, Sock gutted his way through the first three rounds, taking out Yen-Hsun Lu, Gilles Muller and Roberto Bautista Agut despite losing the opening set in each match. His journey ended at the hands of Federer in a lopsided 3-6, 2-6 fourth-round loss, but Sock was still able to show off his blossoming arsenal against the Swiss.

Miami offered Sock another chance to build momentum. He quickly picked up wins against Go Soeda and Fabio Fognini before falling to another young talent, Dominic Thiem, in the third round.

Everything came together in Houston. Granted, Sock didn't face any top-10 players, but he showed tremendous poise and determination, and stormed to the tournament win. Along the way, Sock took out a pair of top-20 players (Bautista Agut and Kevin Anderson), as well as Santiago Giraldo before defeating Querrey in a tense final.

By lifting that trophy, Sock rose to a career-high rank of 36. His trajectory keeps pointing upward.

And he's no stranger to winning big tournaments. In 2010, Sock won the U.S. Open junior title, and the following year he paired with Melanie Oudin to win the mixed doubles crown in Flushing Meadows. But his most notable success so far has come with current doubles partner, Vasek Pospisil.

Sang Tan/Associated Press

Sock and Pospisil quickly bonded and their chemistry sparked when they began playing together last June. In just their first tournament, they won the big one: Wimbledon. The duo played beyond their years and edged the top-ranked Bryan brothers in an epic five-setter.

They didn't stop there. The two also partnered to win the Atlanta Tennis Championships last July, and this season they claimed the title at Indian Wells. Already, they're the No. 4 doubles team in the world. 

That type of experience can give Sock a mental edge in big situations when he's playing singles. But all those extra reps on the court are also good for polishing his shots, especially at net. 

The first thing one notices when watching Sock play is his forehand. He's able to generate incredible pace and vicious topspin with his fluid motion off that wing. The American is also armed with a strong serve and a willingness to come forward, and that combination allows him to dictate points on his terms.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Undeniably, the weakness in Sock's game is his backhand. He still hasn't developed confidence or consistency in that shot, and he often runs around it to unleash another atomic forehand. But should he develop even an average backhand like fellow Nebraskan Roddick had, look out. 

All the other elements are there. Sock is a fit and athletic player, and he shows no signs of trouble moving around the court, even after his recent surgery. While his game may be more suited to grass or hard courts, Sock demonstrated in Houston he can find his way around the clay, too. 

Just making it back to the game showed incredible strength by Sock. And not just physical. He was tested emotionally this winter when his brother went on life support because of a rare disease. Not knowing whether his sibling would survive weighed heavily on Sock.

Eventually, his brother was released from the hospital. But that experience gave Sock a new appreciation for life and tennis, as he told ATPWorldTour.com:

I think it changed a few things for me. I'm enjoying things a little more now ... When you're out there and you get frustrated missing a ball or whatever it is, you can kind of think he's been through, almost not making it to a kind of miraculous recovery. Kind of puts things in perspective. 

That renewed passion and focus could be exactly what Sock needs to push himself to the next step in his career. Talent isn't an issue, and he's won plenty of important matches in his young career. Now, he has a purpose to see things through.

While it's rash to project Sock as a future Grand Slam champion, his recent title in Houston and his doubles prowess show a player who's becoming more comfortable doing what it takes to win. At 22, he's presumably still years away from reaching his prime, and Sock should develop into a player who can make the second week of majors and challenge for other tournaments.

More than anything, Sock's emergence gives U.S. men's tennis something it hasn't found in a while: hope.

All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted. 

Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 



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