By Richard Pagliaro
Jack Sock plays with a star-spangled Babolat racquet and is one of six men flying the American flag into the French Open second round.
In recent years, the softer clay surface has often represented a hard road for American men.
Through two days of play six Americans—John Isner, Taylor Fritz, Mackenzie McDonald, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and Sock—are through to round two in Paris with Tennys Sandgren currently battling in the fifth set of his opener.
Former Paris Masters champion Sock has dropped just one set winning four matches—including three qualifying wins—and was most impressive today breaking big-serving compatriot Reilly Opelka five times in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 victory.
Former world No. 8 Sock, whose ranking has plummeted to No. 310 after what he calls “a pretty horrific two years in a row,” credits coach Alex Bogomolov with instilling him with the self-belief to spark a mini-resurgence.
“That’s be a big part,” Sock said of his work with the man he calls coach Bogie. “He’s instilled that confidence in me again through practices, hitting with him, practice matches against people. He keeps pounding in your head that you have been at that level, you are that player, you are that player, it doesn’t just go away.
“Getting the reps in, getting fit in the head, mentally, everything together has given me the confidence on the court again. Like I said, I feel as good as maybe I ever have out there.”
Given the 21st-seeded Isner plays qualifier Korda—son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, who also contested Roland Garros singles and doubles finals—in round two, the USA is assured of having at least one American advance to the third round in Paris.
While that may sound like a modest achievement, consider only one American man—Taylor Fritz—made the French Open second round last year. And just two Americans—19th-seeded Fritz and Frances Tiafoe—made the third round at the US Open this month with Tiafoe the only one to reach the Flushing Meadows fourth round where he fell to 2019 finalist Daniil Medvedev.
Hard courts enhance American strength; clay courts expose their weakness. Though Isner, a former Rome semifinalist, has long maintained big hitters can craft success digging in the dirt.
“That’s the bit of the misconception about clay is it’s good for grinders. It’s not, in my opinion,” Isner said. “I think for players that like to hit the ball hard and like to hit the ball at chest level, clay is a great surface for big players like that.
“I always thought that clay is a good surface for me.”
Americans will enjoy the success now as the second round presents major challenges: McDonald will face 12-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal, while Sock will face two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem next.
“I heard he’s pretty good on clay,” Sock joked of Thiem. “I heard he played all right a few weeks ago in New York. I think he’s being called the new king of clay after Nadal. He loves it here. Had some amazing results here. Probably playing the best tennis of his life or some of, winning his first Grand Slam a few weeks ago.
“I also think I’m a good player. I’m going to stick to my patterns, stick to my games, hopefully try to dictate some points, control some of the match on my racquet. If he’s doing that on his side of the court, moving you around, controlling points, it’s not going to be a very good day against him. I’ll have to do what I can to try to kind of stick to my play and see how it goes.”
Photo credit: @RolandGarros