By Justin Ross
U.S. tennis sensation Jack Sock remembers the first time he was starstruck.
It was in 2002 when he was 10 years old. More than 77,000 fans showed up to watch the Nebraska Cornhuskers take on the Colorado Buffaloes in a college football showdown.
Wearing a red hoodie and a white cap, Sock attended the game with his dad, Larry, and his brother, Eric.
At halftime, he was connected with his idol Andy Roddick. As the two posed for a photo, Sock didn’t know they would meet again 8 years later.
In 2011, they collided at the U.S. Open. Roddick made quick work of the rookie 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
But, that was an 18-year-old Sock. Now, it appears the 24-year-old’s play is beginning to echo his hero.
Last week, the Nebraska native was a popular name when he reached the semifinals at Indian Wells. He defeated world No. 13 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 5 Kei Nishikori, only to run into the buzzsaw that is Roger Federer.
“I definitely played some good tennis in the last week. It’s been a good start to the year for me in a lot of the tournaments I’ve been playing,” Sock says.
Before that, he claimed the Delray Beach Open in February. Now, Sock, nicknamed Showtime, sets his sights on the Miami Open. With it, comes the challenge of humidity, elite competition and playing with children.
Just hours ago, he wore a pair of Snapchat Spectacles (the newest social media fad) and bonded with kids over tennis drills, but the morning is long gone. It’s 1 p.m. and time to mingle with media members.
Sock strolls into the Patron Lounge at the Miami Open. It’s media day, and the 24-year-old lounges on a plush, white sofa. At 6 feet 3 inches, he’s hard to miss—especially when he rocks a pair of electric-yellow Nike shoes. The bracelet on his right wrist reads: Team Jack.
He also sports a Jordan T-shirt, which is fitting because like Michael, Sock is evolving into an American icon. Not to mention, he’s a Chicago Bulls fan.
In high school, Sock finished with an 80-0 record and four consecutive state titles.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he was the only tennis player to win two medals—taking home a gold in mixed doubles and a bronze in men’s doubles. Jordan also holds two Olympic medals.
However, the rest of Sock’s 2016 season was mediocre. The Nebraska native came away with no titles and a 37-21 record to show for it, but 2017 is starting to look like prime Jordan.
Sock’s off to a 15-3 start, and he already has two titles under his belt (three more singles titles will match Jordan’s six NBA Finals wins.)
For the No. 17 seed in the world, J. Sizzle keeps a surprisingly calm demeanor.
“I didn’t realize that I was the top American until I saw on social media after a match,” he explains. “It’s a great accomplishment, and it’s definitely a great feeling. For my own sake, I hope the top American isn’t at 17 in the world like it is this week. Hopefully, it’s in the top five, top of the game one day.”
Men’s tennis hasn’t seen an American player ranked in the top five since Roddick in 2009, but Sock assures it’s not due to a lack of effort.
“You could ask guys with the names of Federer, Djovkovic, Nadal—those guys are pretty good,” Sock explains. “We’re all trying. We’re all pushing each other, competing with each other to push American tennis back to what it was. It’s definitely a process.”
Fellow American and world No. 9 Madison Keys, echoed his sentiments.
“I think there’s been a pretty high level of U.S. tennis lately. A lot of the guys did really well last week at Indian Wells. As a whole, everyone is working really hard to get to that next level,” she says. “I think it’s fun because we get to push each other and we support each other.”
Competitors come and go, but the pool of elite American players is increasing. At Indian Wells, 11 U.S. men qualified for the main draw.
And at the Miami Open, that number has grown to 13.
Competitors include Frances Tiafoe, a 19-year-old Maryland native who won his first Grand Slam match at the 2017 Australian Open, and Jared Donaldson, a Rhode Island native, who turned pro at 18 instead of going to college.
Sock has a first-round bye, so for now, he’s enjoying the Sunshine State. He stays in the Keys, which allows him to get away from the congestion of downtown Miami. When he’s not slicing and dicing on the court, he dips his feet in the serene Florida sand.
“We don’t get that many tournaments in the U.S. When we have a chance to play whether it’s Memphis, Delray heading into Indian Wells, Miami, it’s nice to be playing here in the states. The support is usually pretty good,” Showtime tells me.
He will battle world No. 58 Yoshihito Nishioka in the second round. Nishioka is 1-0 against Sock in head-to-head play.
As he gears up for action, Sock is confident. He feels like his offseason workouts are paying off, and his health is where it needs to be.
He may be a rising face of U.S. tennis, but let’s just hope he continues to perform better than his March Madness bracket.
“I don’t like to really talk about it. I had Duke in the final,” he admits