By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia – Jack Sock has never been one to shy away from expectations. In fact, he has his own set of lofty goals, and now he's moving closer to making them reality.
At the age of 21, the Nebraska native is one of the youngest players in the Top 100. He has posted some impressive results in the past, reaching the third round of the US Open in 2012 and 2013, even scoring an upset of world No. 23 Florian Mayer.
But the big-hitting Sock doesn't want to be just a flash in the pan, and while he is well off to a Top 30 ranking at No. 95, he feels like he will soon be mentioned with the likes of the only two relatively young players in the Top 25 – 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov and 23-year-old Milos Raonic.
“Where my mind, my game and body are now, I defintely lean toward I can be there sooner than later,” Sock said after his 7-6, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 first-round victory over Tobias Kamke at the Australian Open. “I think I needed to polish some things in my game and get ready physically and mentally and get a better mindset at tournaments. I can push toward those guys, and every time I play the top guys, I have pretty close matches. I feel comfortable playing against them. It’s just a matter of putting it together week in and week out.”
In the off-season, Sock worked hard on improving his fitness. He did the same prior to the 2013 season and felt like he had made progress, but not to the degree that he needed in order to consistently compete with the big boys.
“When I first came on tour [in 2011], I probably wasn't physically ready to go the distance if I needed to,” he said. "I think I probably just didn't accept it. I knew what I had to do, but I was just trying to get by and kind of just going off either talent or skills or whatever. It clicked for me, and I think I have matured in a lot of ways. Now I am enjoying putting in the work."
Sock feels like he is now ready to go in any type of conditions, and in his win over Kamke in sticky 108-degree heat, he showed that he does have some staying power. Armed with a huge serve and forehand, he can do a lot of damage on fast surfaces. But he also displayed some capabilities on clay last season, qualifying for Roland Garros, upending Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and then playing world No. 13 Tommy Haas close in a three-set loss.
But his agent, his brother Eric, and his coach, the USTA’s Craig Boynton, told him he needed to take it up another couple of notches.
"I think I probably always knew it in the back of my head," Sck said. "You just see those top guys playing six-hour matches, and they look like they're warming up. It's outrageous. But that's what it takes in today's game to be successful and able to make a living at this and achieve the things everyone wants to achieve. I think the last couple months, I just looked at myself in the mirror and figured out what I need to do, and now I'm ready to go and have a great mindset going."
To that end, Sock and his team made sure that he was more consistent in his off-season routines in December. He is naturally strong but admitted that he needed to improve his quickness, as today’s tour is chock full of guys who can go end to end in the wink of an eye.
He will face one of those men in the second round, world No. 25 Gael Monfils, who bested another young American, Ryan Harrison, in the first round. Monfils is very much of a showman and also quite a good player, having once reached the semifinals of Roland Garros and, just two weeks ago, the final of Doha.
“He's one of a kind, that's for sure," Sock said. "He's very exciting to watch, is spunky, has his own style and covers the court better than anyone probably."
If Sock happens to pull off that upset, he will more than likely have the pleasure – or torture – of going up against world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who could give every young player a lesson in how to properly focus in matches.
“With ups and downs during matches, some guys have problems with that. You get broken, and it kind of lingers and can bring your game down, so you try and take that stuff out,” Sock said. "You see those [top] guys, they move on, point to point. It's something I am trying to do this year.”
For more coverage of Americans at the 2014 Australian Open, please also read:
Refreshed Querrey ready to take more risks
Mattek-Sands going with her own flow
For Harrison, big year and big expectations
Teenager Keys ready to go
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