That is why I found myself focussing so sharply on his third round appointment today against Marin Cilic. It was not a make or break, career defining contest by any means, but it was clear as he approached his duel with the 2014 U.S. Open champion that this was a significant test for him. Sock is currently located at No. 27 in the world (seeded 26th at the Open), and that is essentially where he stood at the end of 2015, when he concluded the season at No. 26. His highest ever ranking was No. 22 last November. What is the moral of this story? Why am I belaboring this fundamental point?
Quite simply, he has reached a highly respectable level, but this American individualist has been locked in the same territory for too long. He turns 24 on September 24th. We knew—and he realized as well— that it was time for Sock to make a move, to demand more of himself, to find a way to impose himself more regularly. It is time for this fellow to exploit his potential more fully and find a place among the top 20 performers in tennis. I believe Sock is a better player than he realizes. He has been searching for the answers to tough problems, striving to go to the next level, hoping to make his presence known on a larger scale. And I am convinced he is not the least bit satisfied to remain where he is, making a good living, achieving reasonably good results, trying to expand his game in a multitude of ways.
But that, of course, is easier said than done. At the moment, Sock finds himself as the third ranked American in the Emirates ATP Rankings behind John Isner and Stevie Johnson. They are ranked No. 21 and No. 22 respectively, and so Sock does not stand that far behind them. To get past those guys and establish himself as the top ranked American in the world of tennis, Sock will need to deal with some ongoing fitness issues. To be sure, he can be a rugged competitor. He ousted an enormously promising fellow American in the first round here at the Open, eclipsing Taylor Fritz in five sets. His career five set record is an impressive 4-1. And yet, Sock has had some issues of concern with his stamina and fitness. He had to retire after the third set of his first round U.S. Open confrontation against Pablo Andujar in 2014 and was forced to surrender again after the fourth set of his meeting with the Belgian Rubin Bemelmans in the second round of last year’s Open.
Fitness could be an ongoing issue for Sock, but just as important will be his all out commitment to singles.Thus far in his still young career, Sock has celebrated success much more meaningfully in doubles than he has in singles. In 2014, he won Wimbledon alongside Vasek Pospisil. Five years ago at the U.S. Open, he partnered Melanie Oudin to victory in the mixed doubles. And just a few weeks ago in Rio, he garnered a gold medal by winning the Olympic mixed doubles with the zany Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Those are triumphs of magnitude, victories he will one day tell his grandchildren about, wins of which he can be immensely proud.
But the fact remains that Sock has made it abundantly clear that he has now rearranged his priorities. He now wants to give himself the best possible chance to succeed on his own as a singles player. Today against Cilic, Sock took a major step in the right direction. He played one of the finest strategic matches of his career to topple a man who had come to the Open with a growing sense of self belief. Cilic had won his first Masters 1000 singles title ever, ending Andy Murray’s 22 match winning streak in the final of Cincinnati. The 6’6″, No. 7 seed seemed capable of making another run deep into the draw, and perhaps replicating the 2014 form that carried him to his lone major title win.
But clearly Sock had learned something from his spirited comeback against Cilic earlier in the summer. Facing Cilic for the first time in a Davis Cup contest, Sock was down two sets to love, and seemingly headed for a decisive defeat. He rallied gamely to take that match in five sets. They had not competed against each other since, so their third round U.S. Open showdown was a very big match for both men. Cilic surely believed that Cincinnati had given him such a large dose of confidence that he could beat anyone in the field and perhaps secure a second major title in New York. As for Sock, he knew that it was time to step up on a big occasion and play the way he wanted, to meet the moment with a sterling performance and not leave Louis Armstrong Stadium with any regrets.
That is exactly what the American managed to do. After Cilic served his way into a 3-2 first set lead, Sock made his presence known unhesitatingly. He held at love for 3-3, broke Cilic for 4-3 as the big man committed four unforced errors, and then went ahead 5-3. Two games later, Sock served for the set, and this was the only juncture all match long when he was given a stern test on his serve. Sock took a 40-15 lead, but double faulted. At 40-30 he was pressured into an error by Cilic’s penetrating return. Sock garnered two more set points after that, but Cilic saved them both with gorgeous forehand drop volley winners. But Sock was unmoved by that Cilic stand. He earned a fifth set point with a terrific, unstoppable slice serve out wide. And then he produced an excellent second serve kicker that Cilic sent long off his backhand return.
Despite that difficulty closing out the first set, Sock was in full command of his game and in charge of his destiny. He went on a spree early in the second set. After Cilic held in the opening game, Sock collected 12 of the next 13 points to lead 3-1. Cilic held twice more, but Sock was giving the Croatian no openings. He broke again on a double fault from the Croatian in the ninth game, and just like that it was two sets to love for the American. Cilic fought on in the third set and stayed on serve until the eighth game. But Sock broke him there as the Cilic ground game deteriorated. Sock served out the match with full conviction, holding at 15 to complete a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory.
Only once before has Sock reached the round of 16 at a major, and that was at the 2015 French Open. He lost there to none other than Rafael Nadal, the nine time Roland Garros champion. This time around, he will face the charismatic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for a place in the quarterfinals. I loved the way Sock served against Cilic. His variety was magnificent. He would throw in first serves at 99 MPH followed by second serves at 115 MPH. Then he would unleash first serves at 138 MPH. He had Cilic guessing throughout about his intentions. His intelligence was admirable in every way.
Sock never even faced a break point across the three sets. Moreover, he won 37 of 43 first serve points (86%) and 22 of 31 points on his second serve (71%). Cilic may not be the world’s best returner, but the fact remains that those Sock numbers were outstanding. He knew exactly what he was doing from start to finish, and Cilic was confounded by the mixture that was thrown at him.
If Sock can approach his round of 16 contest against Tsonga in a similar state of mind and execute as well as he did off the forehand against Cilic, he could create a path to victory over the Frenchman. As he said following his win over the Croatian, “I feel definitely more on a mission this year, you know, like I have been at most tournaments….My goal is to be competing to win tournaments that I’m playing instead of just being content with making a quarterfinal of whatever tournament it is. I’m definitely on a mission to compete to try to be winning these tournaments I’m playing.”
Asked to size up his duel with Tsonga, Sock said, “It’s sort of similar to today. I think he’s a guy who likes to lean on the ball. He likes to be attacking and dictating. If I can throw some variety in there, serve well again and get into some return games, the chances go up for me.”
That is an excellent assessment. What is so encouraging—no matter what happens against Tsonga—is that Jack Sock seems to be proceeding down the right path. He is clear about what he wants. He is brimming with enthusiasm. He realizes that he must make the most of himself now as he approaches his prime. Beating Cilic was terrific, but he realizes there is a lot of work left to be done. How he finishes this year will tell us a great deal about what to expect from Sock over the next few seasons. I am eager to watch him in the near future as he looks for ways to establish himself as the best American in professional tennis.