Ah, the French Open, the time of year when a certain question is asked repeatedly by American tennis fans: Why can’t the country’s players, particularly the men, find success on red clay?
Now along comes former Blue Valley North star Jack Sock, who unabashedly calls the slow surface “my favorite surface.”
Yes, that’s right, even though there are not many red clay courts in the United States — Sock first encountered them in Europe — and even though, at first glance, they’re considered less-than-ideal for players who thrive on speedy serves and forehands. Sock and another American, 16th-seeded John Isner, both fit that description. Both won first-round matches at Roland Garros on Tuesday.
“This just suits my game very well,” said Sock, 22. “I’m able to take my time and kind of maneuver the ball around. Movement is another big part of my game. I feel like on the clay, I get to a lot of balls.”
He did just that Tuesday on bullring-shaped Court 1 during a 7-6, (9-7), 6-2, 6-3 victory over Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, who was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year and was seeded 10th in Paris, making him the top man to lose so far.
“Jack played his game,” he said.
Cleanly, too. Sock hit 30 winners and made only 18 unforced errors (10 fewer than Dimitrov) and saved all six break points he faced. Pounding serves at up to 136 mph, leaping into his big forehands, and effectively pressing forward to win the point on 19 of 25 trips to the net.
Not traditional clay-court tennis, necessarily. But it worked.
“I may have been one of the first to really like it,” said Sock, who won his first ATP singles title last month in Houston on green clay. “For me personally, I look forward to this time of year.”
The 6-foot-10 Isner, who beat Italy’s Andreas Seppi 7-5, 6-2, 6-3, is also learning to like the crushed dirt.
“A lot is said about clay and how it’s a defensive surface. It’s sort of, I would say, a misconception,” Isner said. “I think clay is a very good attacking surface. A guy like (Rafael Nadal), yeah, he plays great defense, but knocks the cover off the ball.”
Four of the seven U.S. men in this year’s field already are gone, as are 13 of the 17 American women. Andre Agassi was the last American man to even get to the quarterfinals at the French Open, and that was back in 2003.
Sock, who won the 2014 Wimbledon doubles title, had surgery to repair a torn hip muscle in December, so his 2015 season began late. He also dealt with a more worrisome matter this year: His older brother had a serious lung infection.
“He’s doing much better now. He’s got full, I guess, health back,” Sock said. “It’s been a lot outside of tennis for me, a lot of stuff going on. It’s motivated me in a lot of ways to see a family member — and especially my brother; I’m very close with him — go through what he did. And I was in the hospital every day with him after I had surgery, so just back-to-back things that were very unfortunate.”
Sock’s win over Dimitrov represented the day’s only departure by a seeded man. Two seeded women were beaten: No. 6 Eugenie Bouchard, a semifinalist at the French Open and runner-up at Wimbledon last year but a loser of eight of her last nine matches; and No. 25 Jelena Jankovic, the runner-up at the 2008 U.S. Open.
Things went as expected for the very best of the best: Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams — owners of 41 Grand Slam singles titles among them — all delivered straight-set wins on Court Philippe Chatrier.
There were some blips, however brief. Nine-time champion Nadal lamented that he started slowly. Djokovic was two points from losing the second set before reeling off 22 of 29 points. And Williams? She got fooled by the awkward spin of one shot and got plunked by the ball, leading to laughter.
“I’m allegedly a professional tennis player. And I was thinking, ‘I’m going to hit a backhand.’ ‘I will hit a forehand.’ And, ‘I will run around and hit a backhand.’ ‘No, no, no, run around and hit a forehand.’ Next thing I know, it hit me in the back,” Williams said. “So I was, like, embarrassed. At the same time, I thought it was really funny. It happens to the best of us. Maybe not. But to me.”