Only two American men have advanced to third round of the French Open.
One of them is former USC standout and two-time NCAA singles champion Steve Johnson.
The other is Jack Sock.
Sock, a native of Nebraska the 2010-2011 USTA Boys 18s Kalamazoo Champion, is one who works against the typically conceived paradigm of Americans not preferring clay. Sock calls clay his favorite surface, a claim backed up not only by this third round appearance in Paris, but also his maiden ATP title coming on clay in Houston. With another solid win over Pablo Carreno Busta, he is quickly becoming a legitimate threat on the red dirt.
There are questions to be raised here; why does Sock like clay so much, and why is he having success on it when his countrymen often struggle to break even?
On the surface, Sock’s game isn’t so different from the typical American tennis player. He loves playing first strike tennis, using his serve and forehand as the major catalysts of his game. His backhand is by far his weaker wing, which is why you’ll often see him make very concerted efforts to run around it to play a forehand. This propensity to run around backhands is one common to many American men on the Tour.
What separates Sock from the rest — and allows him to succeed on clay — is the amount of topspin he is able to produce off his forehand side. The oft-made comparison to Rafael Nadal is hardly hyperbolic in this respect; Sock is one of the only players out there who consistently obtains even close to the level of spin and work on the ball that Nadal creates. His balls are heavy, meaning they have pace and spin behind them, move quickly through the court, and bounce high in the air once they land. Like Nadal, Sock is able to take huge, aggressive cuts at the ball while still playing high margin, low risk shots.
Attempting to power through a slow surface against some of the fastest, most athletically gifted players the sport has ever seen is a large task. Doing so with low margin, high risk shots is something many Americans have attempted for years, and it hasn’t worked.
Fortunately for Sock, his forehand does necessitate that he plays the ball with that same risk.
Comparing Sock to someone like John Isner, Sam Querrey, or even Steve Johnson, is rather simple. These players do many of the same things that Sock does, but hit a much flatter ball off the forehand side, thereby making their clay court games far less effective and sustainable.
Sock’s other main advantage is how he is able to use his forehand get the ball out of his opponents’ comfort zones. It is a shot that is accentuated by the natural tendencies of clay itself, where the forehands of his compatriots are hardly helped by the surface, which does little more than slow their shots down.
It’s hard to expect players to change their natural playing styles, but Jack Sock presents a very nice model for what future players should be looking to do on the surface if they want to succeed with a forehand-centric game. Tennis has always been about making more shots than your opponent, and it’s just a simple fact that, for all of the youngster’s aggressive intent, Sock’s shots will be still be kicking up higher — and landing in more often — than those of his American counterparts.
Sock is one match away from setting up a potential fourth round match with Rafael Nadal. If that happens, keep your hard hats on, because the ball may spin right through your television screen.