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The question has circled the sport of professional tennis for the past several years, ever since a one-time wunderkind ranked in the worldwide top 10 started plummeting.
Whatever happened to Jack Sock?
It turns out the answer to the first part of that question can be found in Charlotte, where Sock quietly moved a year ago.
Sock, 28, has lived in Kansas City for most of his life. But his relationship with Laura Little — a former Charlotte Honey Bee who later became Miss North Carolina USA in 2019 — had deepened. He wanted to be geographically closer to her, and his move to Charlotte was a huge success in that way: The two were married Dec. 12 on the beach at Kiawah Island, S.C., and have settled in the Charlotte area.
“Now we own a house here, we’re married and we have two dogs,” Sock said with a grin. “I no longer live in Kansas City. So life happened, and it’s been amazing.”
The second half of the answer as to what happened to Jack Sock?
That’s the hard part.
Because while Sock’s personal life has flourished, his professional life has floundered, and no one is totally sure why. In part, it’s due to thumb and back injuries that sidelined him for months. But even when healthy, Sock’s tennis results for the past three years were mediocre at best.
Sock is plotting his tennis comeback mostly from the Charlotte area with his coach, former Top 40 pro player Alex Bogomolov Jr. The two train every day, usually at Cabarrus Country Club and sometimes at several other tennis facilities just north of Charlotte.
Sock has played tennis in front of 20,000 people many times. On the morning I went to his practice recently, no one was there watching him, except for Bogomolov.
Sock’s presence in Charlotte has largely gone unnoticed except by his friends, family and a select few in North Carolina’s tennis community. But he’s ready to let the secret out about his new permanent residence.
He hasn’t adopted the Carolina Panthers yet — Sock remains a huge Kansas City Chiefs fan — and he’s still weighing the “who’s got the best barbecue” argument. But he has found the people of the Queen City to be kind and the place to be a pleasant surprise.
“Charlotte has been amazing so far,” Sock said.
Jack Sock ‘one of the great mysteries of tennis’
Ranked No. 8 in the world in November 2017, Sock has fallen to No. 257. And 257 is actually a vast improvement from where he was a year ago, when he was no longer ranked in a listing of the top 1928 men’s players and had zero ATP points.
So Sock’s comeback has already begun. He has pushed his way back into the Top 300 over the last few months in part with an impressive French Open result in September 2020, where he won three rounds of qualifying and then defeated fellow American Reilly Opelka, ranked No. 36 in the world at the time, in straight sets in the first round of the main draw. Sock then lost to Dominic Thiem in the second round.
Still, to get back into the top 100, Sock will have to trudge through the minor leagues of tennis. For a guy who has won more than 10 million dollars, three Grand Slam men’s doubles titles and an Olympic gold medal playing tennis at the most elite level, it will be a difficult road.
I called up one of the sport’s most astute observers to ask how difficult.
“Jack Sock is one of the great mysteries of tennis,” said Jon Wertheim, the executive editor at Sports Illustrated and a frequent commentator on Tennis Channel. “What happened? He’s got so much talent that he could be the top American in the rankings — again — by the end of 2021. But to do that, these tournaments he’s going to have to play? This is really ‘From Yankee Stadium to Single-A ball’ type of stuff.”
Sock’s talent is unquestionable. His 100-mph forehand is an enormous weapon and, when cranking properly, rates as one of the game’s best. His hands are so quick and his instincts so good that he has won 14 ATP men’s doubles titles — including Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Open once — even though he largely concentrates on practicing and playing singles (four ATP titles). He also boasts a gold medal from winning the mixed doubles competition with Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and a bronze medal in men’s doubles from the same Olympics.
But Sock isn’t interested in becoming a doubles specialist, even though he could make a good living there. He wants to make it back to the top level of the game in singles, where all the glamour and all the pressure are, and he thinks he can.
“I don’t think we’d be out here in this weather and everything, grinding trying to get ready, if I didn’t,” Sock said before a recent practice. “I believe I can get back close to that (No. 8 career-high ranking). Or that. Or better than that. I think clearly I’ve proven I can play at the highest of levels. I still believe I can play at those levels.”
I asked John Isner, who was a groomsman in Sock’s December wedding and is currently the No. 1 American men’s player, about Sock’s attempted comeback.
“Jack is an unbelievable talent, there’s no denying that,” Isner said. “The stuff he can do on the tennis court is amazing to watch when he’s in full flight. He’s, without a doubt, the best doubles player in the world — despite the fact that he spends zero percent of his time practicing doubles.”
Sock also has an endearing personality. I’ve coached high school tennis on a volunteer basis for the past decade, and I’ve seen firsthand that many elite junior players often don’t play prep tennis at all. They believe it’s beneath them. Sock, though, played all four years in high school at Blue Valley North in Overland Park, Kan. He went 80-0 and won four straight Kansas state singles titles before turning pro at 18, skipping college as most junior tennis phenoms do.
As a professional in 2016, Sock was once involved in a tight match with Australian Lleyton Hewitt. After Hewitt, down 4-5 in the first set, hit a first serve that was called out, Sock yelled over the net: “That was ‘in’ if you want to challenge it.”
Hewitt looked up in disbelief. The umpire appeared baffled. But Sock repeated: “Challenge it!”
Hewitt did and the ball was in. Sock lost a critical point and, later, the match, but the YouTube videos of his act of good sportsmanship have been viewed almost 4 million times.
Looking for the big stage
As Sock sweats through his practices in Charlotte, one thing he’s particularly working on is getting in tournament condition.
“We’re obviously trying to get him back into playing shape,” said Bogomolov, Sock’s coach. “The offseason, with the wedding and all the other little things he had, kind of added up. ... So we just need to grind through the first part of the year and then get his rankings back up. Because Jack is a big-time player in big matches. That’s where he performs his magic. We need to get him onto the big stages again.”
To get there, though, Sock will first have to work his way through a number of no-name tournaments. He’s not attempting to qualify for the Australian Open — his ranking wouldn’t be high enough to afford him direct entry into 2021’s first Grand Slam in February.
Instead, Sock will likely will begin playing tournaments in March, possibly in South America. Tennis is based on a ranking system that is brutal on a multi-month injury like Sock’s right thumb, which required surgery in 2019 and meant that he lost a number of ranking points while waiting to heal. (Because of Sock’s extreme Western grip and the torque he generates on every forehand, his grip is hugely important).
In some ways, Sock’s tennis career has never quite recovered from that thumb injury. He now has to rebuild his confidence as well as his ranking.
“If you’re out for any significant amount of time, your points drop off so fast,” Sock said. “You’re kind of out of the picture pretty quick.”
Oddly, though, it was the thumb injury that allowed Sock to come to Charlotte for weeks at a time and pursue his relationship with Little. They had actually met on social media in 2016 and had kept up with each other since, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the injury took Sock off the road and they had more time to see each other.
“I was rehabbing my thumb,” Sock said, “and we spent so much time together. We became pretty inseparable.”
Little was originally the first runner-up in the Miss North Carolina USA pageant, but she got upgraded to the Miss NC USA title when the original state winner, Cheslie Kryst, also won the Miss USA title in May 2019 and began to serve in that role instead. Little is now a professional model and also runs an online clothing boutique with her younger sister, Courtney.
Sock, meanwhile, has simplified his post-wedding life. It’s mostly tennis, Laura and their dogs Winnie and Wesley. He knows that in today’s tennis world, there’s still plenty of time for a comeback if he can muster one.
“At one point in men’s tennis, age 28 meant it was about time for a transition out of the game,” Wertheim said. “Now you might have another decade left. Sock is probably one of the five best pure athletes in the sport. He’s certainly got a chance.”
Said Isner: “Jack’s game is built on physicality. Once he gets back into very good fighting shape, he’ll be a force on tour again.”
In the meantime, Sock is hitting with Bogomolov, day after day on the six courts at Cabarrus Country Club, seemingly enjoying the competition and what he called “the fresh jolt of energy” that tennis has provided to him once again.
“My love for the game is back,” he said.
During one session I watched Wednesday, Sock and Bogomolov bet $5 on a long series of points, several of which wouldn’t have been out of place at an early-round match in a Grand Slam. Sock finally won the last point with a forehand rocket.
“What a point!” Sock yelled in delight. “OK, let’s go! Double or nothing!”