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He missed the Australian Open as hip surgery required recuperative time. His season thus started much later than he would have liked at Indian Wells, long after most players had settled into the 2015 campaign. He surely realized that the challenge of playing the game on his own terms was not going to be easy. And yet, 22-year-old American Jack Sock has dealt with some hard circumstances remarkably well. Over this past weekend, he secured the very first title he has ever captured on the ATP World Tour, collecting the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships crown in Houston, toppling countryman Sam Querrey in the final of that event, taking that contest in a pair of tie-breaks.

After that triumph, Sock moved to a career high at No. 36 in the world, and that climb up the worldwide ladder has been a substantial feat for a player who can be both exhilarating and exasperating, for a young man who competes with unbridled intensity and extraordinary determination, for a fellow who wears his heart admirably on his sleeve yet has a tendency to get in his own way with some of his abrasive behavior. The hope here is that the highly charged and deeply driven Sock will come to realize soon that he will sacrifice none of his integrity if he becomes more reverential toward officials. He has made some strides in that area, although there is much work left to be done.

In any case, his title run at the ATP World Tour 250 event in Houston was a worthy one. In his final round victory over Querrey, Sock could well have found himself on the opposite end of the score-line. He saved three set points in the opening set, and then rallied from a break down in the second set as Querrey served for a 5-3 lead. Neither American was at their zenith, but nonetheless they had an intriguing clash. Both men wanted the title wholeheartedly; in the end, however, it seemed clear that Sock’s pursuit of victory was more urgent, uncompromising and sustained than that of his rival.

Querrey has been around a lot longer than Sock. The 27-year-old Californian turned pro way back in 2006. He achieved a career high ranking of No. 17 in 2011. He has concluded no less than six seasons among the top 50 in the world. Across a distinguished if somewhat disappointing career, he has captured seven ATP World Tour singles titles, taking his last of those championships at Los Angeles in 2012. Querrey has been working exceedingly hard with the astute Tom Gullikson since September, and he looked primed for this appointment.

And yet, Sock is ever combative, and he was undaunted by Querrey’s history. Sock turned ambition into reality by establishing himself as the better player in the tightest corners of the contest. From Sock’s standpoint, having such an overriding will to win was commendable, but sadly Querrey was uncomfortable and often inept when in commanding positions, and that cost him not only the match but also the title.

At 1-1 in the opening set, Sock garnered the first service break of the match as Querrey double faulted for 30-30 and then was coaxed into a couple of groundstroke errors by the power and depth of his adversary. But Querrey broke back for 2-2 with a magnificent defensive stand which eventually led to a netted forehand from Sock. Querrey held on for 3-2 and even had a break point in the sixth game. Sock fought his way out of that dangerous corner with one of his trademark inside out forehands, drawing a backhand slice error from Querrey, holding on for 3-3.

The 6’6” Querrey has long possessed a formidable first serve, but Sock has swiftly developed an overwhelming first delivery of his own. From 3-3 up until the first set tie-break, Querrey won 12 of his 13 service points while Sock dropped only 5 of 17 points on his serve, although he had to erase a 0-30 deficit against him at 5-6. In the tie-break, Querrey trailed 2-1 on serve but then collected four points in a row. He reached 4-2 with a line clipping backhand slice crosscourt that rendered Sock helpless. On the following point, Sock attacked, punching a respectable backhand volley crosscourt. Querrey sent a backhand passing shot whistling down the line for a timely and outright winner.

Now Querrey was serving at 5-2, and apparently poised to close out the set with perhaps just a few swings of the racket. But he missed his first serve on each of the next two points. Querrey missed a running forehand crosscourt wide, and then bungled a backhand into the net. Sock was improbably back to 4-5. He soon stood on level ground at 5-5 but Querrey took the next point for 6-5, holding a set point on his own serve. He missed his first serve again. Sock waited for an opening, and angled a bold forehand crosscourt. He produced a clean winner for 6-6 but Querrey quickly moved to 7-6, reaching set point for the second time.

Sock was serving this time, and he worked his way forward behind a forehand down the middle. It was not a good approach, but Querrey drove a two-handed passing shot into the net. It was 7-7. Sock advanced to 8-7 and his first set point, but Querrey collected the next two points on his own serve. He now was at set point for the third time. Sock seized control of that point unrelentingly with a barrage of big forehands. The last of those penetrating shots elicited an errant lob off the forehand from Querrey. That made it 9-9. Querrey missed a backhand down the line, giving Sock a second set point. Sock seized that opportunity with a terrific forehand approach that drew a misguided lob from Querrey. Sock sealed the set with his 11-9 victory in the tie-break.

Sock, however, was not brimming with confidence. He saved a break point in the opening game of the second set and then did not make much of an impression on Querrey’s serve. Querrey swept 12 consecutive points on serve to reach 3-3. In the seventh game, Querrey blocked a short forehand return that forced Sock into the net under less than ideal circumstances. Sock steered a forehand approach crosscourt, and Querrey ably anticipated that play, directing a forehand passing shot down the line and into the clear.

Querrey had the break for 4-3, and the way he had been serving it seemed entirely possible that he would make it to one set all in short order. But Querrey missed three out of five first serves in the following game, double faulting to fall behind 0-30, sending a routine inside out forehand wide for 15-40, getting broken at 15 when he drove a forehand down the line into the net. That unprovoked mistake made it 4-4.

Both men held comfortably from there until Querrey served to stay in the match at 5-6. He squandered a 40-15 lead, losing three points in a row (the last with a double fault) to enable Sock to reach match point. But Querrey was fully composed when he had to be, making a superb first serve that set up a strong forehand approach. Sock erred under duress on a forehand passing shot. Querrey wiped away that match point with his aggression and served his way into another tie-break. But Sock was undismayed. He started the tie-break in style, lacing an inside out forehand commandingly for a winner.

Sock was off and running, and virtually unstoppable. He got the mini-break for 2-0 with a crackling inside out forehand that rushed Querrey into an errant backhand down the line. Querrey took the next point on serve but Sock bolted to 4-1. With Querrey serving at 2-4, Sock released a very deep return. He had Querrey on the defensive, and then stepped inside the court and made another inside out forehand winner. It was 5-2 for the younger American, who served the next two points. On the first, Querrey sent a forehand on the run down the middle with impressive pace and depth. Sock somehow answered with a clutch play, blocking a backhand with a short backswing into the open court.

That winner put Sock at 6-2, quadruple match point. His kick second serve was too much for Querrey to handle. Sock had gained a 7-6 (9), 7-6 (2) victory over his compatriot. He had come through primarily because his inside-out forehand was the single biggest shot on the court. He controlled the tempo with that stroke, forcing Querrey to operate too frequently on defense, largely preventing his rival from dictating. But Sock survived despite eleven double faults in his 12 service games. To his credit, Sock did not double fault in either tie-break, and he never allowed the double faults to come in clusters. The fact remains that he would not get away with that many double faults against a player ranked in the top ten in the world. Moreover, he made only 50% of his first serves. Fortunately for Sock, Querrey was even worse in that department, concluding the match at 45%.

The bottom line is that Sock succeeded by displaying his superiority under pressure. He was victorious because he was better when it really counted. Now that he has captured his first tournament, he will inevitably secure many more. Sock is currently the second ranked American at No. 36, trailing only world No. 19 John Isner. There are a number of Americans not far behind. Querrey is No. 41, Donald Young stands at No. 48, and Steve Johnson is stationed at No. 51.

The view here is that Sock should finish the year somewhere inside the top 25 in the world. He has some wrinkles to iron out in his game. No one is more obsessed with hitting inside-out forehands, but Sock can be yards off the court and in danger of colliding with the side fence, and yet he still goes for that shot rather than hitting a backhand. He needs to strengthen his two-hander and improve his crosscourt backhand. Building his game around the inside-out forehand is fine up to a point, but Sock overdoes it. He could learn to build points in other ways, exploit his first serve more regularly, and add consistency on his second serve.

But the fact remains that Jack Sock has improved decidedly over the past year. He has the firepower on serve and off the forehand to become a front line player in his sport. I hope Houston was the start of a new phase in Sock’s career, a time of growth and higher awareness, and an important step toward the top of his potential. He has worked hard to make it inside the top 40 in the world, but Sock surely believes he will soon reside in much loftier territory.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.

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