Much of the focus on American men's tennis lately (here included) has been on the promising group of American teenagers on the way up. It's always easy to get excited about the next big thing, and the
U.S. has its best crop of emerging
young players in over a decade. But in
the meantime, Americans Jack Sock and Steve ("aka Stevie") Johnson
have made clear they're worth our attention with their now concluded impressive
Jack Sock had been on everyone's radar for quite some time, as he was one of
more promising juniors in a while in his own right. But his first few years on tour weren't much
to write home about. That's not to say
they were a complete disaster, but he clearly wasn't ready for life as a top
level pro. He struggled with his
fitness, had a questionable work ethic, and lacked a respectable backhand. Sock started to finally break through in
2014, and took it to a new level in 2015.
With improved fitness, a better backhand and seemingly more comfort
being on tour, Sock should finish the year around 25 in the world.
Sock won his first ATP World Tour title in 2015, posted several top 20 wins, and now has to believe he belongs on the same court with the world's top players. Whether he can make the jump to the top 10 in the next couple of years will probably depend on how much he improves his backhand, as there's not much else that should hold him back. Given that he made significant strides with his backhand already, it finally looks like he's made this a priority. If he continues to do so throughout the off-season and comes into 2016 even stronger off that side, it's reasonable to foresee Sock finishing next year somewhere in the 10-15 range in the rankings.
For Johnson, it wasn't that long ago he was hanging around 150 in the world. As good as he was in college, people started wondering if he had the game to make in on the ATP Tour. Johnson answered all such questions in 2015, and should finish around 30 in the world. He ended the year on a strong note, and will enter 2016 with tons of confidence. Johnson's upside probably isn't quite as high as Sock's, but he can certainly become a top 20 player in 2016.
Johnson's backhand hasn't come as far as Sock's, and he seems to have resigned himself to becoming a "slicer" off that side a la Feliciano Lopez. This can work to a point, but it's hard to reach a truly elite level without at least a solid two-handed backhand. Hopefully for his fans Johnson spends his off-season practicing cross-court topspin backhands for about three hours a day. If he enters 2016 with an improved backhand stroke (even if it's just by a little), he'll certainly be no fun for the rest of the tour to play against in 2016.
Sock and Johnson may no longer be the shiny new objects in American men's tennis, but it looks like they'll be more than capable of holding the fort down until help arrives. Seeing the teenagers quickly rise through the ranks also may have pushed them both to improve, as they realized they could soon get passed by if they don't. With Sock, Johnson and lots of young talent on the way, landing a spot on the U.S. Davis Cup team looks to be a difficult proposition throughout much of the next decade.