Sock lat­est to em­body U.S. hopes

2nd-high­est ranked Amer­i­can in Citi Open Round of 16

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY MATTHEW PARAS

Google “Amer­i­can ten­nis” and the re­sults aren’t kind.

On the first page alone, head­lines range from care­fully cau­tious to ut­terly de­press­ing.

“Is Jack Sock Amer­ica’s next great hope in ten­nis?”

“Can U.S. ten­nis rise again?” “The U.S. will never dom­i­nate ten­nis again. And nei­ther will any coun­try.”

Iron­i­cally, none of the ini­tial head­lines in the search re­sults men­tion Ser­ena and Venus Wil­liams, the two most dom­i­nant play­ers in women’s ten­nis since the start of the 21st cen­tury. Google’s al­go­rithm fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on the Amer­i­can men — who haven’t won a Grand Slam ti­tle since Andy Rod­dick snared the U.S. Open in 2003.

Over the next 14 years, men’s ten­nis has been con­trolled by four men — Roger Fed­erer, Rafael Nadal, No­vak Djokovic and Andy Mur­ray. Four gen­er­a­tional, non-Amer­i­can tal­ents.

In this era, any promis­ing U.S. player is tagged “Amer­ica’s next great hope.”

That in­cludes the Amer­i­can tal­ent at the Citi Open, hap­pen­ing at Rock Creek Park Ten­nis Cen­ter this week through Aug. 6.

“It goes in one ear and out the other,” said Jack Sock, who was the fea­ture of a Rolling Stone pro­file this year ask­ing if he was the sport’s Amer­i­can sav­ior.

Sock, 24, is the sec­ond-high­est ranked Amer­i­can in men’s ten­nis — ranked 19th in the world. He’s play­ing in Thursday’s Round of 16 at the Citi Open, against Jared Don­ald­son.

Don­ald Young and Steve John­son, two Amer­i­can play­ers who’ve also been cast, at one time or an­other, as sav­iors of Amer­i­can ten­nis, were also in the field

at the Citi Open, though Young lost late Tues­day. John­son played late Wed­nes­day.

Sav­ior. It’s a la­bel not based on the re­al­ity of what hap­pens in­side the white lines on the court, but a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the emo­tional hunger of Amer­i­can fans. It’s some­thing Sock un­der­stands.

“The U.S. fan­base is not spoiled, but we’ve had so many good play­ers that come through here, so many Grand Slam cham­pi­ons, No. 1s in the world — it’s def­i­nitely un­der­stand­able,” Sock said. “I def­i­nitely get it. If I was a ten­nis fan, I’d want some­one up there as well.”

The prob­lem is not a uniquely Amer­i­can prob­lem, per se. Af­ter all, the four play­ers atop the sport have dom­i­nated the world, not just the U.S.

Fed­erer, who turns 36 next week, is win­ning at un­prece­dented lev­els, con­sid­er­ing his age. The Swiss just won his first Wim­ble­don in five years, his eighth time do­ing so. He has the most Grand Slam ti­tles of all-time with 19.

Nadal, af­ter bat­tling back and wrist in­juries a few years ago, is hav­ing a resur­gence and won this year’s French Open. The 31-year-old Spa­niard has 15 Grand Slam ti­tles.

Bri­tain’s Mur­ray is in the prime of his ca­reer.

Djokovic, from Ser­bia, is deal­ing with a back prob­lem, but mod­ern medicine can ex­tend ca­reers in ways it couldn’t in the days of John McEn­roe.

Ris­ing stars like Aus­tria’s Do­minic Thiem and Ger­many’s Alexan­der Zverev, like the Amer­i­cans, are of­ten left on the out­side look­ing in.

“It’s very un­usual that you have four play­ers like this is one gen­er­a­tion, but I think it’s get­ting bet­ter for the younger play­ers,” said Thiem, who is ranked No. 7 in the world and is the top seed at the Citi Open. “There are some tour­na­ments where we’ve had a break­through against them.”

The U.S. po­ten­tially had a break­through at Wim­ble­don — with Sam Quer­rey, ranked 24th in the world, ad­vanc­ing to the semi­fi­nals. Quer­rey was the lone Amer­i­can among the coun­try’s four best male play­ers to skip the Citi Open —though John Is­ner ended up pulling out with a knee in­jury.

In the District, the Citi Open has seen a drought of Amer­i­can win­ners. Sloane Stephens won the women’s por­tion in 2015, but an Amer­i­can hasn’t won the men’s ti­tle since Rod­dick in 2007.

Citi Open tour­na­ment di­rec­tor Keely O’Brien said she was op­ti­mistic about the next gen­er­a­tion of U.S. tal­ent, even with the heavy ex­pec­ta­tions and pres­sures put on them to be­come the next star.

“I think they all re­ally carry it well,” O’Brien said. “They’re pro­fes­sion­als. They’re here. This is their sport, this is their liveli­hood. This is their pas­sion, their love. I think some may feel some ex­tra pres­sure to be in that cat­e­gory. But if any­thing, I think some of them are thriv­ing be­cause of it and get­ting no­ticed.”

There were times over Citi Open’s 49-year his­tory when Amer­i­cans dom­i­nated. An­dre Agassi is a five-time win­ner. Rod­dick has won three times. Jimmy Con­nors and Arthur Ashe are among the other no­table Amer­i­can win­ners.

O’Brien’s fo­cus, though, cen­tered around col­lect­ing the best tal­ent pos­si­ble to play in the tour­na­ment. In her first year as tour­na­ment di­rec­tor, O’Brien and her team were suc­cess­ful in get­ting names like Kei Nishikori, Nick Kyr­gios, Si­mona Halep and the re­turn of three­time Citi Open win­ner Juan Martin del Potro to play in the District.

The goal was mak­ing the Citi Open a des­ti­na­tion for the top tal­ent in the world.

“Fans here, love all play­ers. I don’t think at the end of the day, it’s not the Olympics — where you’re so pride­ful for your coun­try,” O’Brien said. “You have the Amer­i­cans that would love to see Nishikori win and would love to see del Potro win. I don’t think it re­ally mat­ters. It would be great for Amer­i­can ten­nis to go up, but fan­dom is across the board, which is awe­some. I love that.”

But un­til an Amer­i­can male breaks through on the world stage, the long­ing for “Amer­ica’s next great hope” per­sists.

“Ob­vi­ously, we’re do­ing our best,” Sock said. “We’re not out here. We don’t want to stay around 17 or 18 in the world. We want to move up, be the next No.1 or the next Grand Slam cham­pion. We’re all work­ing to­ward that.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jack Sock, the sec­ond-high­est ranked Amer­i­can in men’s ten­nis and ranked 10th in the world, plays in Thursday’s Round of 16 at the Citi Open against Jared Don­ald­son.

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