PARIS – Jack Sock became the youngest American man to advance to the Round of 16 at the French Open since Pete Sampras in 1993 after he beat 18-year-old Borna Coric 6–2, 6–1, 6–4 in the third round on Saturday. Behind an impressive display of powerful hitting, the 22-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska, fired 31 winners—19 off his vaunted forehand wing—to notch his best performance at a Slam. His reward? A fourth round match against nine-time champion Rafael Nadal.
After early after hip surgery delayed his start to the season until March, Sock has navigated a difficult draw to notch yet another career milestone. Ranked No. 37, Sock opened the tournament with a straight-set rout of No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov 7–6, 6–2, 6–3, a bracket-breaking win that paved his way through to face to unseeded players next. He needed four sets to get through Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta and then played his sharpest match of the week to beat Coric, a heavily-touted Croatian teen who already has wins over Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Through it all it has been the forehand that has proven devastating. He has hit 128 winners in the tournament—including an astounding 67 against Carreno Busta—with more than half of those winners coming off the forehand side (68 to be exact). By comparison, his backhand wing has produced just 16 winners. But Sock's backhand has improved, as has his ability to protect that corner. Coric found it nearly impossible to exploit on Saturday.
"It was difficult to get the ball in his backhand and it was difficult when I did get to his backhand that he didn't miss, which was very frustrating for me," Coric said after the match. "I expected he's going to miss something, he's going to give me some opportunities. I expected that he's not going to return that well, like he did. I mean, I didn't serve great but I didn't serve bad, and I don't remember that he miss one return. And also when he came to his forehand, when he had the point on his forehand, I was just going further and further back. I couldn't stay in the rally."
That Sock's Slam breakthrough has come on clay is surprising to everyone except him. While most Americans grow up virtually allergic to the Europe's red clay, Sock has embraced it. He started the clay season with his first ATP title at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston, the only American men's tournament on clay. "I feel like it maximizes my game more than other surfaces," Sock said. "I'm able to set up and dictate with the forehand again. [My serve] definitely gets up. It definitely makes my shots a little more lethal than on other surfaces. It feels like it suits my game very well. I feel very comfortable on it."
The win gives Sock his first look at Nadal on Monday. The Spaniard has moved through to his 11th consecutive Round of 16 in Paris and has not lost a set. His wins have come over fairly weak competition as none of his first three opponents—Quentin Halys, Nicolas Almagro and Andrey Kuznetsov—were ranked inside the top 100. Sock's grip-and-rip game is precisely the style that can cause Nadal problems. After playing big-hitting French wildcard Halys in the first round, Nadal couldn't help but point out the trend he sees in the future generation, which includes power players like Sock and Nick Kyrgios. "The tennis is moving that way," Nadal said. "Younger, aggressive. And the tour in general are moving to hit the ball stronger and quicker, going for the winners all the time. So when [Halys] wants to play like this and he put the balls in, just I cannot do nothing."
Sock's forehand, with it's heavy topspin and high revolutions, has been compared to Nadal's in the past. Sock says he's looking forward to seeing how it stacks up against the game's most dominant clay court player. "I'm kind of excited to see the forehand-to-forehand battle," he said. "Obviously we are both going be trying to do similar things. It will be pretty interesting to see the different game plans going on."
Obviously we are both looking to hit forehands. For me, the ad side of the court and him the deuce side of the court, and try to find the other's backhand and maneuver the ball around. I think it will be kind of a chess match and who can find the forehand first and kind of open up the court. So it will definitely be one I will have to be focused and be thinking on every shot and every point. It will be good. It will be fun."
Until then, Sock will stick with his very non-Parisian Paris routine: Chipotle on off-nights, Indian food the night before his matches. It's served him well so far. As for his chances for an upset, Sock is ignoring all the talk surrounding Nadal's supposed "slump."
"I don't know if there is any time to have a better chance than not to play Rafa on clay," Sock said. "It's always going to be an extremely tough match, and always a tough battle. But obviously I do have confidence right now. I am playing some good tennis. But once again, he's the King of Clay, they call it. It will be more of an exciting match and one I look forward to."
This post has been updated.