OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — It was Jan. 1, the greatest day in the young tennis career of Jack Sock.

The 12-year-old Lincoln player started off the New Year with a comeback for the ages in the boys singles final of the Winter Super Nationals at Tucson, Ariz. Sock lost the first seven games to Jordan Cox of Duluth, Ga., only to rebound for an 0-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory and his first Super National singles title.

A few hours later, Sock was back on the court with Cox as they combined to play in the doubles finals. Sock made it two national championship gold balls in one day, as he and Cox defeated Shaun Bernstein of Plainview, N.Y. and Augie Bloom of Hinsdale, Ill., 6-3, 6-4.

Those were Sock's 11th and 12th matches of the five-day tournament. Rest and celebration seemed appropriate after a long week of pressure-packed tennis with all-important ranking points on the line with every match.

But not for Sock. Instead, it was time for some fun tennis with the rest of the guys. Time to be a 12-year-old.

"I wanted to hit with some of my friends before they left,'' said Sock, who won the Copper Bowl a week later in Tucson. "The four of us (in the doubles final) and some other guys played mini-tennis, baseline games and king of the court. We had a blast.''

Since Sock and his older brother, Eric, began training full-time at the Kansas City area-based Mike Wolf Tennis Academy in the fall of 2003, the younger Sock has exploded onto the national scene. Shortly after his win at Winter Nationals, Jack moved to No. 1 on the United States Tennis Association's 12-and-under boys national standing list. He will be the No. 1 seed in the Spring Nationals on April 10-16 in Delray Beach, Fla.

Prior to last summer, no Lincoln tennis player had ever won a national championship gold ball. Jack Sock now has four of them, counting his doubles titles in the clay- court and hard-court national tournaments last summer.

He also has two national open titles.

That would be enough for anyone to have visions of grandeur, that possibly someday Jack Sock could be the next Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi.

But not Larry and Pam Sock, Jack and Eric's parents. Their only goal in all of this is that their sons enjoy doing it and they learn life lessons along the way.

"We know they'll probably never make their living doing this (playing tennis), and we're spending a lot more money than we'll get back in college scholarships,'' Pam Sock said. "So what's the point? They  have a passion for tennis, and we want to give them every opportunity to pursue it and take it as far as they can."

Larry Sock thought his sons might follow in his footsteps and pursue golf careers, especially when he moved his family into a home at  Firethorn Golf Club. The elder Sock, a member of the Nebraska Golf Hall of Fame, is a six-time state amateur champion.

The boys, however, followed the lead of their mom, who often took them to the nursery at the Lincoln Racquet Club while she played in doubles leagues there. Shortly after they moved to Firethorn, Eric and Jack would go to the racquetball courts in the clubhouse with their tennis rackets and bang balls against the wall.

They went through junior programs at both the Lincoln Racquet Club and Woods Tennis Center and quickly became Missouri Valley-level players. Eric and Jack trained for more than a year under Woods pro Magnus Grahn before the former University of Nebraska player returned to his native Sweden late in the summer of 2002 to be a tennis pro.

In the fall of 2002, the Socks began making weekend jaunts to Kansas City to work with the Mike Wolf Academy, following the footsteps of two other Lincoln players, Joel and Jon Reckewey, who lived and trained there through high school.

A year later, the Sock boys were there full-time, living in an apartment with their mom about a 15-minute drive south of the Overland Park Racquet Club.

"There wasn't enough indoor court time available in Lincoln," Pam Sock said. "We were getting five or six hours a week and the kids they played against (in Missouri Valley and national tournaments) were playing a lot more than that in the winter."

The 22-court facility (14 indoors, eight outdoors) at the Overland Park Racquet Club took care of that problem. The boys are now getting an average of 20 hours a week on the court during the cold-weather months, in addition to conditioning and weight lifting three to four times a week. They're in a program that's grown to eight coaches and approximately 50 players from both the Midwest and nationally.

The Wolf Academy has produced 24 gold ball winners during its 18 years. Currently, two of the top 16-and-under girls players nationally — Colleen Rielley (No. 3) and Amanda Craddock (No. 6) — are training there. Millard North junior and former high school state champion Olga Elkin has also moved there to play full-time.

"I don't have to worry about the tennis end of it, I know they'll (the Wolf coaches) get the job done," Pam Sock said. "The boys love it here.''

When he was younger, Jack Sock played all the sports — basketball, baseball, soccer and football. He even went out to hit a few golf balls with dad on occasion.

"Early on, playing soccer, T-ball or basketball, you could see that competitive streak in him,'' Larry Sock said.

But when Jack was introduced to tennis, he became a freak about it. Pam Sock said Jack thought about it 24/7. He would take a three-hour clinic and want to play more.

"He'd play tennis all day if we let him,'' said Wolf, a former All-America player at Kansas in the 1980s. "Jack has a lot of fire in him. I can't think of a day when we've had to ask him to get out and play. He's always ready to go."

Although Roddick, an Omaha native, is the only world-class pro tennis player he's ever met, Jack says Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer are the players he tries most to emulate.

"I like Hewitt's quickness and how Federer behaves on the court," said Jack, who can be fiery on the court at times. "He's (Federer) so quiet.''

Jack's game could be called a miniature version of Federer's all-court style that has dominated men's tennis recently. Sock is fundamentally sound in all of his strokes with good balance and quick feet. He's not afraid to attack the net and volley, a reason why he's a three-time doubles national champion.

While most kids his age love to sit back at the baseline and rip topspin shots every time, Jack will mix in some slices, as well as well-placed angled shots, much like Federer does.

There's so many variables in play when projecting where Jack's tennis game will be five or six years from now, things such as injuries, burnout and his own physical size and strength compared to the competition. But Wolf likes the foundation that's been laid so far.

"His game will transcend through the age groups," Wolf said. "Jack has the natural ability to play the sport. He picks up things quickly, and he's learning how to think on the court.''

Joel Reckewey got a chance to play with Jack when the Sock brothers were in Lincoln for spring break last month. The University of Nebraska senior was impressed with what he saw.

"His backhand is as solid as anyone his age I've ever seen," Reckewey said. "He has really good technique. Coach Wolf has taught him to hit that heavy topspin forehand, so he can keep a lot of balls in play. Jack's a fast kid and a good athlete."

And he's not afraid of a challenge, even if it means taking a few losses along the way. This is his second year to play up in the 14-and-under division in the Missouri Valley. Jack, ranked No. 1 in Nebraska in 14s, reached the finals of the Valley's 14-and-under Segment I super in Wichita, Kan., in late January and the Sweet 16 final a few weeks later.

In February, he won three rounds before losing in the quarterfinals of a 14s National Open in El Paso, Texas. He combined with another Wolf Academy member, Chris Cha, to win the doubles in that tournament.

In Sock's lengthy biography on the Web site juniortennis.com, he states his ambition "to earn a huge living playing this sport."

 Last Monday during an interview at the Overland Park Racquet Club, he was a bit more cautious about his career goals.

"Hopefully, I can play college tennis for a top program," Jack said.

At 14, Eric Sock is two years older than his brother, and at 5-foot-11, towers over him. From a tennis standpoint, however, he's had to live in Jack's shadow, although Eric has had his share of accomplishments. He's ranked No. 2 in Nebraska in 14s (behind Jack) and is considered one of the top Missouri Valley players in his age group.

Jack not only has gold balls, he gets a lot of the perks that come with that kind of success. He's a member of the Prince National Team, meaning he gets everything he needs — socks, shoes, shorts, shirts, warm-ups, hats, racquets, strings and grips — free. Jack is continually offered full-ride scholarships to nationally-renowned academies in Florida and Texas.

"I'm proud of Jack,'' Eric said. "He's worked hard to get where he is and no one can take that away from him. It motivates me to work harder.''

Not many could handle the situation as well as Eric does. The eighth-grader at Overland Trail Middle School is mature beyond his age, a byproduct of his gifted status in the classroom that makes him a straight A student in the toughest courses he can take. Jack also gets straight As, but he concedes academic excellence to his older brother.

"Spanish is hard for me, and Eric's always helping me out in that class," said Jack, a sixth-grader.

Eric said he would miss a tennis practice to finish a project or do something else school-related, if needed. He's extremely interested in the stock market and investing, something he enjoys talking about with his father, a financial consultant in Lincoln.

"I always put academics before everything else," said Eric, whose goal is to attend either Stanford or an Ivy League school. "I haven't had to skip tennis yet, but if I ever have to, I will. I know academics will take me farther in life than tennis."

Eric has been out the past two months because of a broken left arm that required two surgeries to repair. He's now returning to the court after a couple months of intensive conditioning and weight lifting. His coach, former Husker player Troy Bray, says Eric has the potential to take his game to another level.

"Eric's a big strong kid who will develop a good power game in the 16s and 18s," Bray said. "He'll see more success later in the process.''

The Socks try to make things as normal as possible for their boys. That's why they elected to keep Eric and Jack in public school instead of home schooling, taking classes by correspondence or on the Internet, like many players in academies.

"They've (the schools) been flexible in letting the boys out for tournaments, just as long as they get their homework done when they're gone, " Pam Sock said. "They didn't have a problem with letting them out at 1:45 on Tuesday and Thursday so they could be to the club by 2."

While the boys had their own spacious bedrooms in Lincoln, they share a bedroom and sleep together on a king-sized bed in their two-bedroom apartment in Overland Park. Fittingly, there's a tennis court just outside their apartment.

"We like the apartment, it's easier to keep clean than our house," Eric said. "The amenities are nice — the pool, hot tub and tennis court.''

They've developed a disciplined regimen of school, followed by tennis practice, then dinner and homework. Mom cooks all of their meals, at home or on the road, since she has them on a high-performance, high-complex carbohydrate diet.

Mom also makes sure the boys are signed up for their tournaments and negotiates the best prices she can on airline tickets, hotel rooms and car rentals, stretching their financial resources as far as they can go.

Unless Pam Sock and the boys are at a tournament or coming back to Lincoln, Larry Sock usually makes the trip to Kansas City to spend the weekend with his wife and family.

He arrived in Kansas City on Friday night of Easter weekend, then returned to Lincoln for work at 4 a.m. Monday morning. He plans to be in Florida with the rest of the family for the Spring Nationals later this month.

"We don't go very many days without seeing each other,'' Larry Sock said. "It certainly helps to be able to get in a car and drive three hours or less and be there. We're making it work.''  

Reach Ron Powell at 473-7437 or rpowell@journalstar.com.

 

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