Jack Sock takes the biggest steps of his career in Flushing Meadows.
His 2010 victory in the U.S. Open Junior Championships gave legs to his myth. That title -- the first by an American since Andy Roddick's a decade earlier -- not only got him on the radar of success-starved American tennis fans, but on Novak Djokovic's and Roger Federer's as well. Sock's practice sessions with those two world-beaters set the stage for the concussive semifinal that followed.
Sock's next step came last year, when he teamed with Melanie Oudin to win the U.S. Open mixed doubles crown. Barely a month had passed since he turned pro, a road he almost bypassed for college. Yet there he was, still standing on Arthur Ashe Stadium court after gutting out a three-set tiebreak victory over the eighth-seeded Argentinian duo of Gisela Dulko and Eduardo Schwank, basking in chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!".
On Wednesday afternoon the 19-year-old Nebraskan took his biggest step yet, dismissing Italy's Flavio Cipolla 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 on Court 17. Tempting as it is to herald Sock's second-round breakthrough as some changing of the guard in American tennis -- given that it preceded Roddick's retirement announcement by two hours -- sorry, we're not quite there yet. What it heralds is only the possibility. By beating Cipolla and avenging one of the worst defeats of the season, Sock showed that the baton is merely within his grasp.
A month ago Sock entered the Farmer's Classic in Los Angeles feeling good about his game, which flatlined after he suffered abdominal and pelvic tears in March; he said the injuries cost him "three or four months" on tour. This newfound confidence flowed from a strong Atlanta Open showing in which he posted victories over Alex Bogomolov Jr. and Steve Johnson before succumbing to John Isner in straight sets, the first in a tiebreaker.
It's not that L.A. was too much for the young man; it was the quick turnaround, just a day following his loss to Isner. He wasn't as fresh as he would've liked when he faced Cipolla, and the Italian shredded him finer than Parmesan. Cipolla spotted Sock a 2-1 lead in the first set. Then he figured out Sock's triple-digit serve and broke him in five of Sock's last service games en route to a 6-3, 6-1 first-round victory.
That hot muggy day in SoCal, Cipolla was too crafty and consistent with his strokes for Sock. On this 85-degree sunbaked day in Queens, Sock was the one calling the shots. The risky, impatient game plan that proved his undoing in that July meeting was nowhere in evidence. His controiling forehand was, though, and Sock was steady and patient in hitting it, mixing it with drop shots and volleys.
Sock's lone vulnerability was his triple-digit serve, which gift-wrapped 13 break chances for Cipolla. He converted one of them. "For a young guy like that, if you waste all the chances he will play with more confidence," Cipolla said.
Emboldened, Sock attacked Cipolla's tepid serve and went 6-for-6 in breaking it. One of the most crucial breaks allowed Sock to take a 3-2 lead; a nine-game win streak ensued. Sock was on the brink of bageling Cipolla in the second set but double-faulted five times on set point, awarding Cipolla his lone break.
So Cipolla was in trouble. Not as much as the distressed spectator in the front row bleachers on the north end of Court 17, but still. Emergency services were summoned for the fan, extending a third-set changeover with the score at 4-all. (Heat exhaustion was the diagnosis, water the cure.) The call didn't come in enough time to do Cipolla any good. Sock broke him in the next game and overcame another case of the service yips to claim the match. "If I would've been able to get that break, even if I was down two sets, I felt the match could change," Cipolla said. "I didn't think that I couldn't [come back] against him because he's a young kid."
Still, it wasn't until Sock pumped a fist and roared at his box that it really started to feel so much like 2003. Back then the headline was NEBRASKA TEENAGER SCORES US OPEN UPSET. Now it's SOCK AND AWE. With Roddick -- "a guy I watched growing up a lot," Sock said-on his way out, the puns are only going to get worse.
Sock is ready for whatever comes. Pressure barely gets to him. A heavy U.S. Open schedule that includes duties in the men's doubles and mix doubles draw in additions to singles work is proof of that. "I haven't felt nervous about a tennis match in a long time," he said.
The question is how much more can he stand. Sock's game may not all the way there yet -- "I couldn't find his backhand," Cipolla said -- but it's coalescing. His tactics are sharpening, thanks to his barely three-month-old partnership his Swedish coach, Joakim Nystrom. His stamina is improving, thanks to his work with Andre Agassi's former athletic trainer, Gil Reyes.
Sock's hand is outstretched, and Roddick's baton is in sight. It'll take a few more steps, though, before he snatches it.