By E.J. Crawford
The thud of the ball against the garage door was a promising early sign that Jack Sock had a future in tennis. But even an 8-year-old dreamer with a wild imagination would have had a hard time conjuring the scenario Sock faced on the final weekend of the 2010 US Open.
Prior to the men’s semifinals, Novak Djokovic’s camp contacted Sock’s coach, Mike Wolf, to see if his pupil could warm up with the world No. 3. Thirty minutes later Roger Federer’s camp called as well. Sock honored the request that came first, warming up with Djokovic and then watching as he came back to defeat Federer in the most scintillating match of the tournament.
“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Sock says, still seemingly in disbelief, “to have to say no to warming up with Roger Federer before his semifinal match at the US Open.”
Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are coming a little more frequently these days for the high school senior from Lincoln, Neb., who went from promising talent to future star this summer with a victory at the USTA Boys’ 18s National Championships, a solid showing in the main draw of the 2010 US Open and, finally, a Grand Slam title in the boys’ singles of the US Open Junior Championships.
The victory, in which Sock defeated countryman Denis Kudla, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, was the first by an American since Sock’s fellow Cornhusker, Andy Roddick, won the boys’ title in 2000. It also sent Sock’s stock skyrocketing, with those desperate for the next American champion putting him in the discussion with Ryan Harrison—who cracked the Top 200 this year at age 18—among the rising stars in American tennis. And with good reason. Sock turned 18 in September but already has a pro-ready body at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. He possesses an ever-improving serve with surprising pop, power off both wings and surprising touch on his drop volleys and backhand lob.
“He has great strokes and a very bright future,” says an admiring Djokovic, adding, “He’s very talented. He’s  only and he hits the ball like a pro.”
Perhaps most impressive for such a young player, Sock possesses a nimble mind for strategy and a champion’s resolve. Both are traits he utilized to good effect in the victory over Kudla, when he changed tactics after losing the opening set, handling the windy conditions and neutralizing Kudla’s attacking game with deep topspin ground strokes and higher-percentage first serves.
“He’s very natural at tennis and has a really food feel for the game,” Wolf says of his young star. “And he’s fiercely competitive. There’s no question in my mind that when he goes out on the court, he’s going to do everything in his power to try to win the tennis match in the bounds of sportsmanship. He will not go down easily. He will not come off the court, shrug his shoulders and say, ‘I had a bad day.’”
Not that Sock has had many bad days of late. His summer surge was hailed by media outlets throughout the country, enough to swell the head of any teenager. But thus far Sock has taken the adulation in stride, noting drily, “I had to go to school the next day after winning [the US Open], so that got me back to reality.”
Therein lies the secret to Sock’s success. With all the trappings of tennis fame on the very near horizon, he has remained remarkably grounded, the product of having lived a remarkably normal life for a tennis prodigy. Unlike the majority of top junior players, Sock is not home-schooled—in fact, he plans to compete for a fourth straight state singles title in 2011 for Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kan. He did not decamp to sunnier climes for tennis academy training, and made special mention of how nice it was to get home and hang out with his friends following his victory in Flushing Meadows.
That is not to say that Sock hasn’t taken advantage of his opportunities, however. He got his interest in tennis from his mother, Pam, a recreational player, and used to borrow her racquet and a few balls to hit against the family’s garage door. At age 8, his parents enrolled him in clinics at the local courts, and junior tournament play came soon after. It was at one of those tournaments where Wolf watched him compete. Wolf saw potential in Sock and invited him to train at his tennis center near Kansas City, Kan., a three-and-a-half hour drive from Lincoln.
After accepting the invitation, Sock, his mom and his brother, Eric, currently a sophomore tennis player at the University of Nebraska, would travel to Kansas City each week before eventually moving to Overland Park. Jack’s father, Larry, a financial advisor in Lincoln, would stay behind during the week and visit or travel with them on weekends. “Only seeing my dad on weekends when I was growing up was definitely the hardest part for me,” Sock says. “But we’ve all gotten used to it now and it worked out pretty well.”
Indeed it has, and both Wolf and Jose Higueras, the director of coaching for USTA Player Development, credit Sock’s level of consistency growing up with having enabled him to reach his potential, allowing him to excel on the court while still staying close to his family and within his comfort zone.
“I’m not a big fan of people leaving home [to train],” says Higueras, who has coached Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, among others. “Sometimes you have to do it to improve, but if you have a good situation at home, I think it’s better for the stability of the kid. Jack’s got a good situation, and when you have a stable situation like he does, winning and losing is not as big of a deal because your family keeps you grounded and gives you a base of confidence. That defuses all the pressure.”
Sock’s next step is to start playing more on the USTA Pro Circuit and improve a professional ranking that currently stands in the low 600s. Barring a sudden and sharp rise up the rankings, Sock plans to maintain his amateur status through the end of high school and has not ruled out collegiate tennis—though his 2010 results would appear to make that a long shot.
Moreover, despite the clamor for the next great American tennis champion, Sock refuses to put a timetable on his development. He and Wolf devised a plan early in his junior career to allow Sock to build his tennis career at a measured rate, and they see no reason to deviate from it now. For that reason, when pressed, Sock readily declines to place himself among a next generation of American tennis stars that includes Sam Querrey, John Isner and Harrison—at least just yet.
“I don’t really feel much pressure. Those guys are Top 20 in the world and I’m still 650 and whatever,” Sock says, referring to Querrey and Isner. “I think as long as I work as hard as I can and do everything that my coach tells me and do everything to the best of my abilities, then hopefully I can have a future. The ultimate goal is to be a pro tennis player and make a living playing tennis.”
Wolf, who has produced three Top 100 players and 15 Division I All-Americans, calls Sock the most talented player he’s ever coached and says he has no doubt Sock will see his dream through.
“I think he’s progressed at a good speed for him,” Wolf says. “He’s very fresh and very eager. He’s let his body mature and his game mature, and he’s had a chance to understand what this is all about at a higher level, which will help him a lot. I think that when he decides to go at it more, he’ll be very passionate about it. I think he’s heading down a very good path.”