By Giri Nathan
Jack Sock has stumbled into an oasis after two whole seasons in the desert.
It looked slightly surreal at the time and looks even more so in retrospect, but at the end of the 2017 season, Sock was the No. 8 player in the world. He was a Paris Masters champ and runner-up at the ATP Finals; he hauled in three titles and $2.8 million. That was a weird time for the tour, hollowed out by injuries to top players—think Filip Krajinovic in a Masters final—but it seemed like this dude from Kansas with an eccentric, inimitable forehand was going to be a top 20 fixture for a good while. And, at age 25, perhaps also the top player in American men’s tennis for the near future.
Then Sock lost the thread. In the 2018 season, there were 15 tournaments where he lost his first match. He did not string together consecutive wins until October. He went 9–22 on the season and fell out of the top 100 in singles. But during this collapse, there was at least something in his game still clicking: He dominated in doubles, winning Wimbledon and the US Open. Sock’s backhand is plain, and his movement can be lacking, but just give him half the court to control with that wicked forehand and net game, and he’ll still be lethal. So despite all the singles dysfunction, Sock could hold on to some external validation that he was among the most gifted tennis players in the world. He still had the tools. “I think without the doubles success, I don’t know [what] I’d feel about the sport. I’ve been in some low places this year,” he said at the time.
But in 2019, that all slipped away too. He fell out of the top 100 in doubles. He lost all eight singles matches he played. He tore two ligaments in his right thumb. There was total hibernation between January and July. When he did take the singles court, he appeared visibly out of shape. Possibly there was more dogging him than just the hand injury. There were losses in Challengers to players ranked No. 336, 340, 449. His only singles win of any kind: over Fabio Fognini, in the make-believe realm of Laver Cup. All of Sock’s singles points evaporated and he ended last year an unranked player surviving on the mercy of wild cards.
One such mercy was a wild card to the Delray Beach Open last week. He took on world No. 51 Radu Albot in the first round. Going in, Sock, now 27 years old, had not won a tour-level match in 15 months and gave no clear indication that anything would change soon. Then again, Albot had missed a month of play with a shoulder injury, and had yet to pick up his first win in 2020.
The result: a match exactly as ugly as the circumstances would suggest. Albot struggled with his shoulder and Sock struggled with this whole enterprise. But if you sifted through it, you could still find a few encouraging traces of the old Sock: flashy touch shots in the frontcourt, a 96-mph forehand beam down the line. The American fended off a match point at 5–6 in the third, won the breaker at 7–2, took off his hat, and wept. Then he shook hands, sat down, and kept weeping. It was not a watchable win, not a win that foretold more wins, but it was a win, full stop, and Sock took it in like someone who knows not to take wins for granted.
And he’d lose the next one at Delray to countryman Steve Johnson, in three sets. This week, looking ahead to Indian Wells, Sock announced a reunion with an old fave: the Canadian Vasek Pospisil, his partner in winning Wimbledon unseeded back in 2014, plus Beijing and Indian Wells in 2015. Because neither has won much doubles lately, the duo isn’t even guaranteed to make the draw, but they’ve made the finals there as recently as 2016 and probably have enough narrative appeal to snag a wild card. Maybe getting back into this salad-days partnership can kick-start Sock’s doubles game and, in turn, his once-promising singles career. Failing that, he can always just try a shot of maple syrup.
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