Get to Know Jack Sock: Jack vs. the “Beasts”

by Steve Fogleman, Special for Tennis Grandstand

Jack Sock at 2011 U.S. Open

Get to know the newest American tennis player on the professional scene, 18-year-old Nebraskan Jack Sock. I caught up with him during the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs last week and got his views about turning pro and the necessary expectations, his time training and getting to know Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, his most memorable match at this year’s US Open (it’s not what you might expect!), and his upcoming schedule for 2012.

The 18-year-old was vying for a main draw spot in next month’s Australian Open as he was treated like a local hero at the event and a heavy crowd favorite. Unfortunately, Sock’s plan was cut short as he had to retire in the third set of his match versus Denis Kudla due to cramping.  Sock returned the following day, however, in good spirits and buoyed by the local support surrounding him to watch the rest of the event. For all of his junior accomplishments, he’d already won the love of the Atlanta tennis community for a singular achievement: teaming up with Racquet Club of the South doyenne Melanie Oudin to win the 2011 US Open Mixed Doubles title.

I asked Sock what it was like to make the most important decision of his life thus far: turning pro straight out of high school, foregoing the college route players like John Isner have chosen to pursue.

Sock said it was “obviously a very difficult decision when you’re 17-18 years old.  You don’t really grasp the concept of turning professional in a sport. For me, growing up, I played lots of team sports, and really loved the team atmosphere. Still do. So, for me,  I really would have looked forward to playing on a college team, being on a team with some friends, and competing as a team and representing a school. In the end, I’m also someone who, when I start something, I like to finish it.  I thought if I’d gone to school, I would want to stay, get a degree and finish what I start, but I felt ready to take the next step and turn pro.”

When asked about comments from fans and others expressing disappointment that Sock did not follow the route of pursuing a university education, Sock said that it was the first he had heard of any comments, and that he doesn’t delve into the internet looking for editorial comments about him.

Sock recalled his most vivid memory of this year’s US Open as being the Andy Roddick match on Arthur Ashe in which he lost in straight sets, but learned a great deal.  “Andy’s a good friend. Both being from Nebraska is crazy. It’s crazy to be playing another guy from Nebraska in a Grand Slam. The whole build-up, seeing your name for a night match on Arthur Ashe is pretty crazy. The whole introduction, the interview before the match starts, walking out on the court, seeing the lights on, how many people, 18,000, cheering for you, especially an All-American match is pretty crazy.” I reminded him that there were even more people both inside and outside of Arthur Ashe watching him that night.

2012 will be the first full year of Sock’s professional career. It will also be his first full year of tennis at any level. “I think this next year will be the first time I will play a full schedule. Obviously, I went to a public high school for four years so I wasn’t able to play the full ATP  Challenger/Future circuit like some other guys who turned pro a little younger. So far, I’m loving it.”

Regarding the new expectations and burdens that turning pro entails, he indicates that “you usually don’t want to think of it as a job. The decision to turn pro is not so much different than when you’re an amateur. The only difference is you’re taking responsibility for yourself now. You’re not having people make decisions for you. Going into this new year, I have to start making decisions on my own, being a lot more professional about the approach to the tournaments and getting better at tennis and more physical in order to hang with these guys, especially in five set matches.”

But the biggest difference, Sock added, is that “these guys are so physical. They’re beasts on the court. If you want to hang with them and compete with the best in the world, you ‘ve obviously got to be in incredible shape and you’ve got to have an incredible mind, so I think that’s the thing that hits you when you see these guys play.”

You would think it would be difficult to play at the US Open and a Masters series event like Miami, as Sock has, and then wind up in a Challenger event the next week. But he seemed to dismiss the notion that there are extreme highs and lows. “It’s a different atmosphere, but every one’s still good at tennis, everyone can still hit the ball. Maybe less people are watching, but you have to try to get some points, and you have to get some matches in. Hopefully, I’ll get through it sooner than later.”

Sock follows College Football closely, most notably his Nebraska Cornhuskers. “I went to the (Nebraska-) Washington game, earlier this season when I was up there visiting my brother and my dad. I think they’re on the right track, and their first impression as far as the Big Ten is that the other teams obviously respect them. The defense was a little weaker this year than previous seasons. It’ll be interesting to see how next year goes. We just let go of our Defensive Coordinator and I think next  year they’ll do really well.”

Sock is currently managed by CAA, a sports management firm which represents Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Fernando Verdasco. Sock’s interactions with the firm’s other clients preceded his relationship with CAA. “Even before I was with them, at the Open last year, I got to warm up with Novak for a week. He liked the consistency of warming up with the same person, so I was either warming up with him or practicing with him when he was off. This year, at the Open, I got to know Murray. I mean, I got to talk with him and spend a little time with him.

His immediate plans are to return to Florida to compete in futures for the first two weeks of January and then resume training in preparation for San Jose and Memphis, where he was awarded wild cards to compete. The USTA announced on Monday that he will also be awarded a wild card to the 2012 Atlanta Tennis Championships next summer. “The next couple of months are basically based on how the the beginning of the year goes. The better you do, the better tournaments you’ll play. If not, it’s back to playing some Futures and Challenger and see how that goes.”

Steve Fogleman covered the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross, Georgia. He manages the website Tennis Maryland and can be followed on twitter @TennisMaryland for further updates.