Ask the average American on either ATP or WTA Tour their surface of choice, and you would be lucky if even one said anything close to “clay.” Gone are the days of Michael Chang and Jim Courier; the last few generations have been born and bred on hard courts, with Har-Tru the closest many young Americans get to clay court tennis.
And that’s not an exaggeration. Just as Australia’s Jason Kubler can construct a clay court-only schedule, others can easily slide past the dirt altogether.
For World No. 37 Jack Sock, it wasn’t until the 2013 Bordeaux Challenger — when the former junior prodigy was 21 years old — when he played his first terre battue tournament.
“I think it suits my game very well,” Sock said after his 7-6, 6-2, 6-3 upset over No. 10 seed Grigor Dimitrov. The American played an incredibly clean match throughout, saving all eight break points faced and hitting twice as many winners to unforced errors.
“My serve is able to get up, forehand gets up, and it slows it down a little bit where I’m able to take my time and kind of maneuver the ball around.”
After losing that first round match in Bordeaux to Spain’s Guillermo Garcia Lopez, Sock quickly adjusted to the new surface, winning three straight matches at the French Open — without losing a set — to qualify for his first-ever major main draw. Once there, Sock got his revenge on Garcia Lopez, before falling to former No. 2 Tommy Haas in the second round.
Compared to the American variations, Sock believes that European red clay helps him move better about the court, track shots, and get back that essential extra ball.
“One of the biggest things is the sliding. On green clay it’s a little bit harder to get your footing. I feel like once you start sliding out to a ball on it, it’s harder to get back in the point.
“Here, it’s very easy to stop and change directions.”
The American’s 2015 season got off to the worst possible start, with traumas ranging from physical to mental. A hip injury hampered him through the off-season; the surgery it required forced him to miss the Australian Open. Right around the same time, his brother Eric came down a crippling case of pneumonia, one that almost took his life.
“I was in the hospital every day with him after I had surgery, so the back-to-back things were very unfortunate. To see him battle and get through something he was very close to not making, it was more inspirational than anything.”
Following his brother’s miraculous recovery, Sock has been playing better than ever. On the first tournament of his return, he won a trio of epic three-set matches to reach the round of 16 of Indian Wells — including World No. 16 Roberto Bautista Agut. In doubles, he re-united with Vasek Pospisil, and together the 2014 Wimbledon champions the won the doubles event, upsetting the Bryan Brothers in the quarters and Fognini/Bolleli — the reigning Australian Open champions — in the final.
“Doubles gives us a lot of confidence; when you go out and you’re playing Saturday, Sunday of these tournaments, one of the last guys in the locker room — and, in some weeks, taking home trophies — only helps, even if it’s on the doubles court. It can relate a lot of things to singles, and I think for both of us it’s been really good.”
Switching to clay, Sock’s successes continued, winning the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston. But just when the American was looking to make good on his favorite surface, he hit a few stumbling blocks in Madrid and Rome.
“Houston is one of my favorite tournaments of the year. It’s a great atmosphere. You’re the home favorite. The crowd is cheering for you the whole time. You come over to Europe and it’s a little bit different in that sense. I started in Madrid and had chances against Tsonga and wasn’t able to capitalize. Then up a set and a break twice on Simon in Rome and wasn’t able to get that one either.
“It’s a couple tough losses, but just keep your head up and go forward, and then play a match like today and kind of all changed around pretty quick.”
The American’s trials and tribulations appear to have added perspective to the 22 year old’s mindset, giving him newfound focus to push through a part of the season many of his compatriots abhor.
“It’s a vital part of our year; you can’t just not play the clay season. Whatever your personal preference is, if it’s not your favorite time of year you still got to play and push through it.”
That kind of positivity clearly transcends words for Sock; it is adding the extra grit his big game needs to compete on the biggest stages. Against last year’s Wimbledon semifinalist, Sock played fearless tennis, moving in at every opportunity and showing off a level of finesse around the net that will surely pay dividends on all surfaces. For a young man who nearly lost everything, the seeds of a new lease on life have been well-tilled on the game’s most fertile soil. And they’re only beginning to bear fruit.
“I’m not one to get nervous a whole lot when I go out and play matches. I was more looking forward to it, that it’d be a fun battle. Two good players going at it on a good court, my favorite surface.”