JACK HANGS UP HIS SOCKS: Socks have long been a part of the tennis narrative. For starters, Bethanie Mattek-Sands gained some notoriety for her retro, knee-high soccer-style socks. Then, despite her modest ranking, she got a sock endorsement.
Over the years, many observers have brought socks into their commentary. Venerable Aussie broadcaster Greg Willis admitted, “I’m so scared of heights I don’t wear socks.” Analyst Bonnie Ford suggested that if Andre Agassi just sprinkled some of his magic red clay dust onto young Novak Djokovic’s socks, the young Serb would have all he needed.
Aussie Todd Woodbridge claimed that when the oh-so-obsessive Rafa Nadal stopped playing tennis, he’d “be very good at housework. His sock drawer will be in order.”
When it comes to tennis and the joy of socks, we must immediately consider Jack Sock, who after his first-round losses in men’s and mixed doubles has retired.
Of course, it must be said that after Mardy Fish, no other player so delighted tennis headline writers as Jack Sock. “Sock Market Up” and “Put a Sock on It” are two of our faves. But long after all the headlines have faded, we’ll remember Sock’s greatest stroke – his forehand.
Tennis has had many an imposing forehand. Juan Martin del Potro, James Blake, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Nick Kyrgios, Carlos Alcaraz and Fernando Gonzalez are all on our short list. But when it comes to sheer teeth-rattling, mind-boggling ferocity, there was nothing like Sock’s take-no-prisoners forehand. It was a cannon – POP! BAM! WHAM! It sounded vicious. “God damn!”
The midwestern native didn’t exactly have textbook form. Early on, Sock’s fellow Nebraskan Andy Roddick predicted Jack would do well despite his technique.
He sure did! Jack reached No. 8. The 30-year-old, who won the Paris Masters in 2017, was at times considered the best doubles player in the world. When Bob Bryan was injured and his brother Mike needed a doubles partner, guess who he chose?
Sock’s career was hampered by devastating injuries to his hip and his thumb. Often sidelined, his singles ranking plummeted. But his fans were quick to note that the powerhouse reached the top ten in both singles and doubles. Jack was a jock, but he could philosophize. He tweeted a famous Nelson Mandela quote: “Sport has the power to change the world, the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way little else does.”
Last weekend, Sock, who’s signed up to play pickleball, poignantly posted a note to his childhood self: “To the 8-year-old boy who immediately fell in love with the sport of tennis. I hope I made you proud. It’s been 14 years of memories I will never forget. From winning four Grand Slams, Olympic Gold and Bronze…and competing on the Davis Cup and Laver Cup teams, it’s been beyond what I could’ve ever dreamed.”
No kidding. Dare we say: he was one Jack who really socked it to us.
THE VARIETY OF TENNIS RETIREMENTS: In 2022, and even more this year, tennis retirements are bursting out all over. Serena’s retirement at the 2022 US Open was a highly produced love-in, filled with tears, over-the-top celebs and an on-court result that wasn’t in the script.
Earlier that year at Roland Garros, the French icon Jo-Willie Tsonga had stepped away. A tear-jerking video and an outpouring of France’s tennis brotherhood soothed the pain.
The retirement of Roger Federer at the Laver Cup in London was a flawless theatrical production, complete with video celebrations, team competition and Roger riding on the shoulders of his Laver Cup friends and foes. Roger’s tears flowed nearly as much as his backhand. In a boundary-busting moment of new-age brotherhood, he held hands with his ace rival, a Spaniard named Rafael.
Then, much of tennis slipped into a dreary funk. The sport is pretty much now out of its mourning period (thank you, Carlos Alcaraz). But it’s not easy when beloved icons vanish.
Decades ago there was another mourning malaise. Bjorn Borg suddenly quit, hitting the game with the most stunning retirement it’s ever endured. The swirling, seemingly ascendent Swedish court god simply turned his back on the circus.
Yes, his future was so bright. But the brooding 27-year-old blond was burned out – and all the “woe-is-me” shenanigans of his ranting young nemesis, Johnny Mac, were draining the poetry out of his journey. Some claimed his absence left an almost spiritual void.
After a US Open loss to Zina Garrison, 34-year-old Chris Evert shared a classy wave to her New York fans as she walked off court with her red Wilson bag.
In contrast, in 2006, Andre Agassi at Ashe Stadium tapped deep into his inner Lou Gehrig and gave tennis’ best ever farewell speech. Through his tears Andre told us, “The scoreboard said I lost today. But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed.
“And I’ve found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on, to reach for my dreams.” There were few dry eyes.
Pete Sampras quietly vanished without much of a fuss until five years later, when, at his Hall of Fame induction, he proclaimed, “I’m just a tennis player – nothing less, and nothing more.”
This year Americans John Isner, Jack Sock and Coco Vandeweghe have all stepped aside. And we’ve celebrated with the former Ash Barty, who as the No. 1 player in 2019 was delivering winners but in 2023 delivered a daughter. All the while there’s the aloof, mysterious Venus “I’ll smile when I want to smile and I’ll retire when I want to retire” Williams. The 43-year-old, who tells us, “This old cat still has some tricks up her sleeve,” keeps on dancing and loves to tease. And, clearly, she will step aside only when she damned well pleases.
MEDIA MADNESS: For a while things have been a bit odd in the tennis media. Tennis Magazine went out of business. The Los Angeles Times didn’t send a reporter to cover Indian Wells and has down-sized their sports department. One of the game’s leading journalists, Christopher Clarey, has left the scene to write books. The usually imposing broadcaster John McEnroe has been sidelined by COVID. And the New York Times, which has altogether eliminated its sports department, has virtually no match coverage of the US Open. There was nothing in the Times written on the retirements of American stalwarts John Isner and Jack Sock. Instead, they’re going with long features with huge photos. Today’s piece was a splendid deep dive on how the one-handed backhand is an endangered species.
Oddest of all, ESPN’s coverage of the US Open has been derailed in markets served by Spectrum Cable, the country’s No. 2 cable TV provider. There is no tennis coverage throughout the New York metro area, including in the Billie Jean King Tennis Center Media Center and around the grounds.
THE GOSPEL OF PAUL: It’s easy to argue that among America’s top three men, Tommy Paul is playing the best this summer. At the Open, for the first time ever, he came back from two sets down as he defeated Russian Roman Safiullin. And today he downed the resurgent Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, the No. 21 seed, in four sets.
AMERICA WATCH: Paul’s Round of 16 opponent is Floridan Ben Shelton, the unseeded 20-year-old who took out Russian Aslan Karatsev in four sets to win his third straight match for the first time since the Aussie Open. No. 10 seed Frances Tiafoe won in four straight sets over the No. 22 Frenchman Adrian Mannarino. Taylor Fritz, who has struggled in Slams this year, and for that matter hasn’t done that well at the US Open, has looked incredible in New York this year. Tonight he demolished Czech Jakub Mensik and in his first three matches hasn’t lost more than two games in any set.
On the women’s side, Taylor Townsend, Sachia Vickery, Jen Brady and Bernarda Pera fell in the third round Friday while No. 3 Jessie Pegula, University of Texas product Peyton Stearns and the popular veteran Madison Keys will play third-round matches on Saturday. Once again it seemed that Coco Gauff was in deep trouble on Arthur Ashe Stadium. As she did on opening night, she lost the first set. But she again showed a newfound maturity and poise and fought back to beat the Belgian veteran Elise Mertens 3-6, 6-3. 6-0.
SAY IT ISN’T SO: Deep into her doubles match, Gauff thought she and her partner Pegula had won and began to offer her buddy a big victory hug. But the match hadn’t finished. Check out the video. And speaking of checking things out, Cindy Shmerler noted that four Czechs – Barbora Krejcikova and Barbora Strycova and Katerina Siniakova and Marketa Vondrousova – were playing each other in women’s doubles and then couldn’t help herself. Shmerler suggested that everyone should “Czech it out.”
WOZ WONDER: In a battle of contrasting comebacks, former Australian Open champ Caroline Wozniacki, who’d been retired for three years, downed former Aussie Open finalist Jen Brady, who’d been sidelined by devastating foot and knee injuries over two years. Wozniacki has gained over 400 ranking spots during the Open. Caroline shared that she’s still friends with Serena: “I talk to her all the time. She’s obviously busy now, as well…She watched my match today.”
TAKING AWAY OUR CHILDREN’S FUTURE: There’s usually a lot of tension when Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina plays a Russian. Today the No. 26 seed beat Russian Anatasia Pavlyuchenkova, but we imagine that Svitolina is appreciative of the 32-year-old Russian, who condemned Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. A while ago Pavlyuchenkova said that she is “now in complete fear…I am against war and violence. Personal ambitions and personal motives cannot justify violence. This takes away the future not only from us, but also for our children.”
NOT EXACTLY FIGHTING WORDS: Madison Keys said that everyone keeps asking [my fiancé and coach Bjorn Frantangelo] if we are fighting, and we are not.” Jessie Pegula’s coach David Witt keeps calling Bjorn the Coach of the Year.”
“I’ll remember Isner for these titanic matches.” – Brad Gilbert
“In general, I don’t trust retirements in this game.” – Pam Shriver
“I can tell you 100% if I were still playing, I would not be going [to Saudi Arabia] for the championships.” – Martina Navratilova
OPENING UP ABOUT INNER TRUTHS: Of late, players have often spoken about the mental stress of tennis. Naomi Osaka opened up the door wide awhile back, and now players are incredibly candid.
One Serbian confided that he should have started therapy long ago. Others speak of their relationship with their mental coaches. American Sachia Vickery commented that psychological issues were the biggest obstacle in her difficult career. She said, “There was a time I just couldn’t get out of bed.”
When asked about her career, Taylor Townsend replied, “I really had to dive into my personal self and try to break it down…and ask myself, ‘How do you feel about yourself? How have the experiences that you’ve had have affected you?’ People talking about my weight, people talking about very sensitive subjects, how I look – Physical appearance is always judged from the very time you step out on court. I really had to… detach from that.
“[I’m] finally accepting who I am…Now I’m just like, ‘Hey, this is Taylor, take it, leave it, you like it, don’t like it, whatever.’ Can’t make everyone happy.”