Just because someone publicly tries to act like they don’t care, doesn’t mean they don’t care.
It can be a defense mechanism of sorts, especially in the face of the biggest struggle of someone’s professional life. Maybe if you try to convince yourself – and others – that it doesn’t matter that much to you, it will hurt a little less.
But if you saw Jack Sock Tuesday night, after his 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2) victory over defending champion Radu Albot, you saw something that will probably surprise his many detractors.
The 27-year-old American won his first official singles match since … November 2018 in the first round of the Delray Beach Open.
He won the tournament in 2017, one of his four career titles.
But his travails since reaching a career-high ranking of No. 8 in Nov. 2017 must make that feel like a lifetime ago. Maybe it even feels like it was someone else’s career, despite Sock’s success in doubles the following year.
Paris Master … to unranked
Sock was outside the top 20 when he made a run through the Paris Masters draw in 2017. It was a friendly draw, to be sure; the highest-ranked player he had to beat at the Masters 1000-level tournament was No. 18 Lucas Pouille.
But it got him into the ATP Tour Finals at the last minute. And there, he defeated Roger Federer, Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev before going down to eventual champion Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals.
And then … he dropped off a cliff.
Sock went 9-21 in 2018, including 14 first-round losses. And what was No. 8 at the end of 2017 became … No. 105 as he began 2019.
After a first-round loss at the Australian Open, he tore two ligaments in his right thumb during a gym workout, had surgery, and missed half the year.
The return was no better; he lost seven first round matches, and retired in his last two because of back issues. He was taking wild card after wild card, with nothing to show for it.
As he began 2020, he had … no ranking at all.
Sock could have begun the season using a protected ranking. The opiners were urging him to “start over” at the lower levels and work himself back up the hard way. But he waited until the ATP Tour headed back to the U.S., and took a wild card into the New York Open last week.
That didn’t go so well. But on Tuesday night, armed with another wild card in Florida, Sock looked engaged. He was giving it full effort and was helped by the fact that Albot, who had his career week there a year ago in winning the title, was hampered with a shoulder issue.
And when he overcame a third-set break, and saved a match point, and finally put it away in the tiebreaker, he dropped to the court and was visibly overcome.
From a guy whose go-to expression typically ranges from smug to smirky, it was a wholly unexpected window into what’s been going on inside over the last two years.
So much emotion from Jack Sock after defeating Albot in a third set tiebreak.
Said through tears he was close to quitting tennis altogether. Thanked current coach Alex Bogomolov Jr. and his fiancée. Then joked that it’s their first win as a couple. 👏 #DBOpen
— Blair Henley (@BlairHenley) February 19, 2020
Tough loss for Albot
Sock’s opponent was his polar opposite. From the small non-tennis nation of Moldova, Albot has had to scrap for everything he’s gotten.
He’s a lot smaller than Sock (generously, 5-foot-9 and 152 pounds, officially). He doesn’t have Sock’s serve or forehand.
And he most definitely never had all of the opportunities that have come the American’s way – and continue to come his way – by virtue of the country he was lucky enough to be born in.
And yet, Albot made it into the top 40 at age 29.
But the first-round loss means that Albot’s current ranking of No. 51 will drop outside the top 65. And that makes a big difference in terms of entry into the top events on the ATP Tour.
You can feel for him – this was going to be the biggest week of his year, and he didn’t come in healthy.
Johnson next for Sock
Sock isn’t scheduled to play tomorrow (wouldn’t it be great if he decided to sign in for doubles at the last minute, and face the Bryan brothers Wednesday night?).
He went over two hours in the humidity Tuesday night, and came out okay. But he’s going to be feeling it. Sock does, however, look fitter than he did last year when he returned.
Sock is 4-2 during his career at the ATP level against his next opponent, countryman Steve Johnson. The two first faced each other back in 2011 at a Challenger in Virginia.
Will the emotions of the breakthrough win start Sock back on the road back to where he should be? It’s a start. But it’s a long road.
And remembering how it feels when you win is a good kickstarter.
(Screengrabs from TennisTV.com)