Sock carries American hopes into quarterfinal vs. Nadal

Jack Sock hits to Jared Donaldson at the Miami Open Tennis tournament, presented by Itau, at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida on Tues., March 28, 2017.
Jack Sock hits to Jared Donaldson at the Miami Open Tennis tournament, presented by Itau, at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida on Tues., March 28, 2017.

Once upon a time, before Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray took control of men’s tennis, it was American flags that waved most often at the men’s final at Key Biscayne.

American men won 12 titles here over 14 years from 1990 to 2004. Andre Agassi won six. Pete Sampras won three. Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Andy Roddick each won one during that stretch. And three other U.S. players — David Wheaton, MaliVai Washington and Jan-Michael Gambill — made the final.

Since 2004, there has been only one American champion, Roddick in 2010. No other American has reached the final.

Jack Sock got one step closer to ending that U.S. futility on Tuesday, when he advanced to the Miami Open quarterfinals with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Jared Donaldson, an American qualifier. Sock, the highest ranked American at No. 17 and the 13th seed, will face Rafael Nadal in Wednesday’s late-night match.

Sock became the first American man since Agassi in 1999 to reach the quarterfinals of four consecutive Masters 1000 events — Shanghai and Paris in 2016 and Indian Wells and Miami 2017.

The 24-year-old Nebraska native — and diehard Cornhuskers fan — improved his record to 18-3 on the year, more wins than any player on tour.

Nadal reached the quarters by converting the only break point of his match against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, which was enough for a 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) victory. Roger Federer also advanced, surviving two tiebreaks to beat Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4). Federer plays Tomas Berdych on Thursday afternoon.

Top seed Stan Wawrinka, on his 32nd birthday, was eliminated 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 by Alexander Zverev.

Last week at Indian Wells, California, Sock beat his first top-5 opponent — Kei Nishikori. He has won two titles so far this season, at Aukland (New Zealand) and Delray Beach (by walkover). On Tuesday, he was named to the U.S. Davis Cup team that will play at Australia from April 7-9.

“I feel like anytime an American wins anything in tennis anymore, it’s a huge surprise or breakthrough for you guys in the media,” Sock said. “If I’m able to do it, awesome. … I love representing the U.S. in every sense. But for these types of tournaments, it’s an individual week for me. I’m not trying to do it for an American to win.

“We had three Americans in the fourth round here, the most of any country I saw. Things are definitely headed in the right direction. If an American is to win a tournament like this, I hope it’s me.”

Sock, known for his mean forehand, hasn’t felt this good about his game since he went 80-0 at Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kansas, winning four titles in a row, dropping only one set in four years — to his brother Eric.

“The more matches you win, the more confident you are,” Sock said. “Whenever you can win titles and play deep into draws — my first semi last week [lost to Federer]; back it up in a quarter so far this week ... physically, mentally, I have never felt stronger.”

Nadal and Sock have played twice, both in 2015. Nadal won both times, but neither was an easy match. In the Beijing quarterfinal, Nadal rallied to win 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. In the French Open Round of 16, the Spaniard won 6-3, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2.

“He’s a very aggressive player,” Nadal said of Sock. “Very powerful player, big serve, big forehand and a good backhand, too. He plays quick with his backhand. So, I need to play aggressive. That’s the only way. If I let him play a comfortable position, it’s going to be impossible for me.”

Sock embraces the challenge of facing Nadal again.

“I’ll definitely give myself a lot more chance to win this time around than maybe I did a few years ago,” Sock said. “I’m 24 years old now and been on tour for a while. I’m playing these matches believing I can win for sure.”

ESPN commentator Chris Evert last week called Sock’s forehand “the best in the game right now.” Brad Gilbert, also working for ESPN, said: “He’s got one of the biggest forehands in the world. He moves tremendous. He’s made a lot of progress in the last 12 months, and the big thing is can he make a deep run in a Slam. Can he make a quarters or semis this year, and can he make a semis of a Masters Series? I do think those are realistic goals, and I think he right now is clearly the best American player.”

Question is, can the best American player win the Miami Open title?

“Experience definitely is an advantage for the top guys in some situations, but tennis-wise, I think I’m definitely ready to beat them,” Sock said. “I’m excited for the battle.”

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