Jack Sock’s Wimbledon victory reflects long journey, family sacrifice

07/10/2014 11:09 AM

07/10/2014 6:47 PM

Jack Sock sensed the unique and cherished tradition and history hovering over him as he made his way to Centre Court for the Wimbledon men’s doubles championship Saturday at the All England Club.

For a second, he even felt a twinge of “crazy” and a rush of “surreal.”

Then Sock reverted to form, which is to say basking in the spotlight and brimming with the confidence that some found excessive when he was becoming the most dominant tennis player in Kansas high school history at Blue Valley North.

“I’ve always had a thing for playing in front of people, and the nerves never really creep in too much for some reason for me,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “The bigger the stage, I feel like the better I play.”

Sock, 21, demonstrated that once more as he approached what proved the match-winning forehand smash for partner Vasek Pospisil and himself against former Kansas City Explorers Bob and Mike Bryan, who have won a record 15 Grand Slam doubles titles.

He thought, “go big,” stood a “little bit wider” and told himself, “Just go for it, man, and whatever happens,” happens.

When his shot zoomed in up the line, Sock went from standing a little wider to standing a little taller: a Wimbledon champion.

So gripped in ecstasy that he didn’t know what to do with himself, Sock fell to the ground and couldn’t immediately summon words.

It was maybe the best moment of his young life.

Until the one a few minutes later, that is, a moment that seems to hint at his maturation and growth in the last few years.

That’s when he locked eyes in the stands with his father, Larry, who had flown to London that morning to surprise him.

His father’s presence further triggered Sock’s appreciation of his own journey to this scene — a journey entirely dependent on family sacrifices and compromises.

Afterward, with his father, his agent and trainer, Sock said, “We all kind of let it out. It was probably the most amazing moment of my life. …

“It’s doubles, yeah, but it’s still a Wimbledon championship and dreams come true and kind of makes it all worth it.”

Sock still is expected to make ripples all on his own. He’s currently ranked 76th in the ATP World Tour singles rankings (sixth among U.S. men), says he is in the best shape of his life and does nearly everything mindful of improving himself.

Still, that was a watershed moment, one that left him reflecting on how this all started in Lincoln, Neb., when as an 8-year-old he blundered across a couple of his mother’s old tennis rackets.

Next thing you know, Jack and older brother Eric were thumping tennis balls off the garage door. Over and over and over again.

Then Larry and Pam Sock moved to a home at Firethorn Golf Club, and Nebraska amateur golf champ Larry Sock, who won the title multiple times, harbored some hopes that the boys would take to golf.

Next thing you know, it’s a night in the dead of winter and the boys are bored and want to go smack balls against the walls at the racquetball courts at the clubhouse.

A night or so later, they said, “Can we go back up and do that?”

After about the third time, Larry Sock recalled thinking, “OK, I guess they have a little interest,” which led the parents to sign them up for novice tennis lessons at the Lincoln Racquet Club.

Soon came the hard part, though.

The boys showed such an aptitude for the sport that the parents wanted to encourage it as much as possible.

So in 2003, they tentatively set out to move to Overland Park to train at the Mike Wolf Tennis Academy. Wolf, Larry Sock said, became essential to what was to come.

The complicating catch was that Larry’s work as a financial adviser would keep him in Lincoln.

“You never know until after the fact,” Larry Sock said. “I’m sure some people thought we were nuts.”

But the boys thrived at the academy, and Larry got used to driving the 200 miles about every weekend. It was an easy ride, really, with maybe only six or seven traffic lights the whole way.

Plus, at the end of the ride was the incentive of precious family time.

“I tried to tell myself this isn’t much different than somebody who has a sales job and leaves on Monday and travels and comes back for the weekend,” he said, laughing and adding, “Maybe I tricked myself with it.”

But Pam Sock, who couldn’t be reached for comment, deserves “95 percent of the credit” for making it work, her husband said.

Despite the disruption and commitment, the family tried to see it as an investment in the boys’ passions, not their futures, per se. The ends didn’t have to justify the means.

Yet by the time Jack was 12, he was first in the United States Tennis Association’s 12-and-under rankings and apparently already had designs on a future in the game: In his then-bio on a junior tennis website, the Lincoln Journal-Star reported in 2005, Sock said his goal was “to earn a huge living playing this sport.”

Jack had a more natural knack for the game and perhaps a more simmering fire for it than Eric, the more dedicated student who went on to play at Nebraska and is coaching this summer at the Elite Squad Tennis Club of Overland Park.

At some point, Eric made a conscious decision that he either could be upset that his brother was beating him down or “see him as a great person to be able to be around and learn from.” Having chosen the latter, he reveled in what he called an “unreal” victory at Wimbledon.

Not that it always was simple for Jack Sock.

He suffered two painful foot injuries in his midteens but stayed undeterred, Larry Sock said, a “bit of a telling sign” of his determination.

While he flourished through high school, winning four Kansas 6A championships and losing just one set in four years (to his brother) to go 80-0 at Blue Valley North, he also was a flashpoint for controversy since he was advancing on the national circuit.

Sock, winner of the U.S. Open boys championship his junior year of high school, posed an absurd mismatch for nearly all high school competition.

Some questioned his eligibility as an amateur, and others bristled at his penchant for brazen behavior.

That brashness is less a part of his game now. Yet not so much so that his father didn’t remind him to “conduct himself professionally” after they met before the match Saturday.

“When you’re a highly competitive person, it’s hard to shut off the edge a little bit,” Larry Sock said. “There’s times he’s not the best at that.”

Just the same, it’s hard and not necessarily desirable to go from “100 to zero,” as his father put it, since the passion is entwined with his success.

For that matter, Sock wasn’t able to downshift after his breakthrough at Wimbledon gave him a second Grand Slam title to go with his mixed doubles victory with Melanie Oudin at the 2011 U.S. Open.

Lest he rest on his laurels, Sock went straight from London to Newport, R.I., for the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships.

He won his singles matches Tuesday and Wednesday, part of the next steps he hopes will soon help him toward making it to the second weekends of major events in singles play. He’s scheduled to play Friday in the quarterfinals against top seed John Isner.

“A few days would have been nice to kind of soak it in with friends and family,” Jack Sock said. “But that’s the tour, and that’s the life that I signed up for.”

And a life he appreciates his family making possible to pursue.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

Defending champ ousted

Samuel Groth, seeded 153rd, knocked off defending champion Nicolas Mahut of France 6-3, 6-4 on Thursday to advance at the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, R.I.

Second-seeded Ivo Karlovic also advanced edging Dudi Sela 7-6 (7-3), 7-5. Groth and Karlovicr will meet Saturday in the semifinals .

Mahut, who collected the most grass-court victories on the tour last year with 12, entered the week ranked 59th. He had won seven straight matches at Newport.

Friday’s quarterfinals — Lleyton Hewitt vs. Steve Johnson followed by John Isner vs. Jack Sock — will be televised on the Tennis Channel.

| The Associated Press

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