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U.S. Tennis Hangs New Hopes on Sock

One would be hard pressed to locate a better venue at which to watch a professional tennis match than the grandstand court at the U.S. Open. With close-up seating and ideal acoustics, the grandstand is the perfect counterpart to the cavernous Arthur Ashe stadium and its downright miserable viewing conditions.

And Saturday, on a wonderfully bright and hot afternoon, the grandstand provided many fans their first glimpse of a rising American star, as Jack Sock - he with the impossibly perfect athlete surname - took on 11th-seeded Spaniard Nicolas Almagro.

In front of a raucous and partisan packed crowd - unusual for a match that started at 11 a.m. - Sock played superbly, even if frequently erratic, but lost the 3- hour 11-minute encounter, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-1 (Sock was treated during two medical timeouts on his arm during the third set tiebreaker and the fourth set).

In the couple of days that have transpired since Andy Roddick's not-entirely-unexpected retirement announcement, tennis observers have quickly scoured the meager list of up and coming American players to determine who, if anyone, is capable of carrying the burden of the "best American player." After watching Sock it is obvious that he, more than the more heralded and cocky Ryan Harrison, will be the one to inherit that mantle. 

And it appears that fans have caught on quickly to Sock's growing potential as there was sustained loud cheering throughout the match in support of Sock, sometimes to the consternation of Almagro, who shot back to a particularly noisy Sock supporter. What struck me about the cheering for Sock was that it had the feeling of familiarity to it, as if Sock had been around for years.

Like seemingly every contemporary player Sock is powered by a strong serve and ferocious forehand and these were on full display on Saturday. But what was most telling of Sock's maturity as a player was his ability to approach the forecourt when he saw an opening. Additionally, Sock also possesses a vicious slice backhand, which will prove crucial in the years to come when he finds himself in a defensive posture.

It's obviously too early to predict just how far Sock will rise up the rankings in the coming year or two. But it's not too early to state that he clearly has the requisite mental and physical makeup to make significant strides in the very near future.

But this much is certain: Sock clearly has the physical and mental attributes that are necessary in order to move his career forward in tennis.

From Bill Tilden to Don Budge and Bobby Riggs to Jack Kramer to Pancho Gonzalez to Jimmy Connors to Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras on to Roddick, there's been an uninterrupted flow of champions form the United States. But it's now been nearly 10 years since Roddick's U.S. Open triumph and finding an American man to threaten for a major title now looks like an impossible task. One can only hope that Sock, in a period of self-realization, measures his progress in increments rather than leaps.

While Jack Sock may represent the future of U.S. tennis, veteran Mardy Fish, who will turn 31 later this year, is still attempting to advance to the semis of a Grand Slam for the first time.

Fish, who once lived with Roddick's family while he and Andy were both enrolled in the same junior tennis program, has long lived in Roddick's shadow during this mediocre era in American tennis. But over the last several years Fish has played his best tennis and has offered up glimpses of "what could have been".

Watching Fish, when he is playing his best, one witnesses a varied talent who is comfortable in all phases of the game. When he plays his best tennis, in much the same vein as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, another perpetual underachiever, Fish seems like he's capable of beating anybody. But for most of his career he's lacked that crucial mental component, too often falling prey to the self-sabotaging insecurity that befalls most athletes.

In defeating Gilles Simon on Saturday night, Fish displayed the kind of all-court game that, when working, makes Fish look unstoppable at moments. 

Fish's reward for reaching the fourth round - Roger Federer. Fish's newfound confidence will be surely tested by Federer, a man who has had his way with Fish. It's now or never for the supremely likeable American and Fish undoubtedly knows it. It's difficult to remain a relevant tennis player into one's 30s.

It's the beginning of a new age … or a continuation of the old one? 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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