Tennis star Jack Sock has begun to play pickleball and believes it will be his future

Tennis star Jack Sock has begun to play pickleball and believes it will be his future

Jack Sock, a Charlotte resident who has risen to as high as No. 8 in the world in tennis, is now dabbling in professional pickleball as well. Sock is shown hitting a forehand in his first professional event, in Charlotte, in May 2023.

Jack Sock, a Charlotte resident who has risen to as high as No. 8 in the world in tennis, is now dabbling in professional pickleball as well. Sock is shown hitting a forehand in his first professional event, in Charlotte, in May 2023.

Jack Sock has had the sort of tennis career that most players can only dream of — an Olympic gold and bronze medal in 2016, as well as career-high worldwide rankings of No. 8 in singles and No. 2 in doubles.

But Sock, 30, has now grown to also love another racket sport that has been sweeping the country — pickleball. Ideally, he’d like to play both tennis and pickleball professionally at the same time.

“That’d be kind of a cool story, to be a dual-sport guy,” Sock said in our interview Wednesday.

A Lake Norman resident since 2020, Sock is trying out this concept by playing three events in his first Professional Pickleball Association event this weekend in Charlotte. Then it will be back to the tennis grind. Sock said he’s scheduled to play in the main draw of the French Open doubles tournament in Paris later this month with close pal John Isner, and he will also play the French Open qualifying tournament in singles. Then it’s on to England, and Wimbledon.

Eventually, Sock can see a future where he transitions completely into a pro pickleball player. For now, he’s mostly concentrating on tennis and dabbling in pickleball.

“It’s been misconstrued a little bit on social media, with people thinking I’m not playing tennis anymore and just playing pickleball full-time,” Sock said. “This is an off week for me in tennis and I’m at home (which allowed him to enter the pickleball tournament, being held at the Life Time Charlotte fitness complex). But I have really gotten into the sport for sure.”

Sock emphasized he’s not making a full-time transition to pickleball yet.

“This will potentially be my only professional pickleball event this year, or maybe I’ll play one more in the fall,” he said. “For now, tennis is still the focus. But at some point in the future, I’ll play tennis and pickleball at the same time. Then, when maybe when my body’s not cooperating enough for tennis and I’m getting older, maybe pickleball kind of takes over for me. I’m not sure of the timeline.”

Sock’s favorite part of pickleball

Sock is still ranked in the ATP Top 200 in tennis, at No. 175 in singles and No. 91 in doubles. He has long excelled at some of the aspects of tennis that translate best to pickleball — the cat-and-mouse, everyone-at-the-net reflex movements where volleys need to be struck crisply and at lightning speed.

Jack Sock, a Charlotte resident who has been among the Top 10 tennis players in the world, plays in his first-ever Professional Pickleball Association tournament in early May at the North Carolina Open in Charlotte.
Jack Sock, a Charlotte resident who has been among the Top 10 tennis players in the world, plays in his first-ever Professional Pickleball Association tournament in early May at the North Carolina Open in Charlotte. Courtesy of Professional Pickleball Association

“The things I enjoy about pickle are all the handsy shots,” Sock said, “the ‘feel’ shots where fast things are happening at the net and you have to be explosive. All that feels pretty similar to tennis, especially in doubles.”

Sock grew up in Kansas and lived for much of his life in Kansas City. He moved to the Charlotte area because he became involved in a relationship with Laura Little — a former Charlotte Hornets cheerleader who later became Miss North Carolina USA in 2019. The two were married at a South Carolina beach in December 2020.

Sock, who incidentally is the most famous volunteer assistant tennis coach Davidson College has ever had, has achieved all sorts of things in tennis. In doubles, he has won Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Open once. His Olympic gold medal in 2016 came in mixed doubles, with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. His combined singles and doubles earnings are nearly $12 million.

Professional tennis player Jack Sock practices with his coach Alex Bogomolov Jr. at the Cabarrus Country Club in Concord, NC on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.
Professional tennis player Jack Sock practices with his coach Alex Bogomolov Jr. at the Cabarrus Country Club in Concord, NC on Wednesday, January 20, 2021. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

But thumb and back injuries sidetracked Sock in the late 2010s and his results the past few years haven’t been great, particularly in singles. He took a break of several months from playing tennis tournaments at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, trying to work on his fitness.

“I lost 20-25 pounds and feel a lot better,” said Sock, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and said he’s now playing at around 193 pounds. “Feeling lighter will help keep extra stress off my joints.”

A Top-5 pickleball player?

In pickleball, as Sock noted, you don’t have to cover nearly as much court as in tennis. He’s not at the elite level of his new sport quite yet — there are a number of pro pickleball players who also have lots of athleticism but boast far more experience. But the potential is there.

“If Jack devotes himself to pickleball all the time, I think he will be a Top-5 player within 12 months,” said Connor Pardoe, the CEO of the Professional Pickleball Association.

Pardoe said in an interview that Sock’s public embrace of pro pickleball was “pretty monumental” for the sport.

“He’s one of the best athletes ever on a tennis court,” Pardoe said, “and he’s a very popular player. So to have someone like Jack playing in a pro pickleball tournament can only help us.”

The Charlotte event this weekend drew a field of roughly 1,200 players, Pardoe said, with about 950 of those amateurs and 250 playing in professional divisions. Sock was scheduled to play singles, doubles and mixed doubles in the pro divisions of the North Carolina Open, in which players were competing for a total purse of $300,000. The men’s singles winner will earn $25,000, Pardoe said. By contrast, the winner of the 2022 U.S. Open in men’s singles earned $2.6 million.

In early results, on Thursday, Sock was seeded 20th in men’s singles at the Charlotte tournament. He won his first two matches to get to the tournament’s quarterfinals, then lost. Unlike tennis, Sock had to call his own lines at this weekend’s matches and pick up his own balls, too, since there were no ball boys or ball girls.

In tennis, singles is the more high-profile discipline and the one that’s always on TV. In pickleball, though, doubles is far more popular than singles, and doubles what you’ll usually see recreational players playing if you happen to drive by a pickleball court.

Jack Sock, who has been a Top 10 player worldwide in tennis in both singles and doubles, plays in his first-ever professional pickleball tournament. The event was held in early May 2023 at Life Time Charlotte, a fitness club in south Charlotte.
Jack Sock, who has been a Top 10 player worldwide in tennis in both singles and doubles, plays in his first-ever professional pickleball tournament. The event was held in early May 2023 at Life Time Charlotte, a fitness club in south Charlotte. Courtesy of Professional Pickleball Association

The tennis vs. pickleball conflict

You can fit up to four pickleball courts on a single tennis court, much to the consternation of many tennis players who growl at having their court space taken up and new lines chalked out by the millions of pickleball converts. The Guardian called it a storm brewing in America, albeit a “very middle-class, middle-aged storm.”

Sock has some thoughts on the very real “tennis vs. pickleball” conflict seen at many public venues around America, as well as on pickleball’s growing popularity.

“I want to be kind of a bridge between the two sports,” Sock said, “and to advocate both, and let people know you can go out and enjoy both. Obviously, if you’re a tennis lover and all of a sudden some of the tennis courts in your community are now pickleball courts — I understand that makes it less easy to play. But there’s a middle ground here. There’s no reason for either sport to rip on the other.”

Professional tennis player Jack Sock practices with his coach Alex Bogomolov Jr. at the Cabarrus Country Club in Concord, NC on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.
Professional tennis player Jack Sock practices with his coach Alex Bogomolov Jr. at the Cabarrus Country Club in Concord, NC on Wednesday, January 20, 2021. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

As for pickleball’s surge, Sock said he believed it’s because the learning curve isn’t as steep and its social aspect provides an immediate draw.

“Pickleball is blowing up because it’s much more user-friendly,” Sock said. “It takes less time to get the skills down. Tennis is hard. It takes a while to develop your game. With pickle, friends and family can be competitive quickly. But obviously, there’s also a history with tennis that is tough to beat.”

While Sock has found pickleball enticing, he said there are some parts of tennis that he still misses when on a pickleball court. While he can smash his signature forehand in both sports, the underhanded serve in pickleball doesn’t play to his strengths.

“In tennis, I can serve overhand, try to crank one at 130 (mph) and get a free point,” Sock said. “And I do miss having a polyester string (in a tennis racket) that is strung loose and that I can rip as hard as I want to. But both sports are super fun in their own ways. They can co-exist just fine. I want to help make that happen.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has earned 20 national APSE writing awards and hosted The Observer’s podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.” His new podcast and online series is called “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” and features 1-on-1 interviews with NC and SC sports icons.
Support my work with a digital subscription

administrator

Related Articles