After Tennys Sandgren advanced to his second Australian Open quarter-final on Sunday, a member of the media told the American that he is now 5-2 against Top 20 opposition at Grand Slams.
“Wow,” Sandgren said.
The 28-year-old has proven over the past three years he has the game to play on the sport’s biggest stages, beating the likes of Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini at the season’s first Grand Slam. But it all seems a bit surreal to him still.
“The fact that I am [on this stage], I get kind of amped up. I want to perform. I want to do well. I don’t want to take the time on the court for granted,” Sandgren said. “Getting to play on a big stadium, getting to play in front of a lot of people, because I’ve played a lot of tennis in front of the very few people, the fact I get to do that, seems to bring out the best tennis in me. It seems if I play pretty well, I have a shot.”
It’s not lost on Sandgren that it took him several years to get to this point. The Tennessee native turned professional in 2011 after competing for two years at the University of Tennessee. But he would not break into the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time until 12 June 2017, when he was one month shy of his 26th birthday.
“I wasn’t supposed to be here. I spent a lot of time in my career not sniffing these opportunities. So there are better players than me that I played with in Futures and Challengers that have stopped playing because they just ran out of money or got injured or something like that. The fact that I was blessed enough to keep hold of my dream and to be able to try and fulfill it, have the body to do so, the opportunities, [I am] definitely blessed,” Sandgren said. “It’s worked out pretty well. There’s definitely a world where it didn’t work out. Some of the margins were pretty small for me to have some of these opportunities. I definitely don’t take it for granted.”
On the three occasions Sandgren has made at least the fourth round of a major, he has been ranked outside the Top 90. So his success against top players on these huge stages isn’t something fans would expect. But that doesn’t mean last year’s Auckland titlist, who has been ranked as high as World No. 41, hasn’t worked to best prepare himself so that he’d be ready in such moments.
“There’s been a few things in the past two years that I wouldn’t have thought would be the case. It’s too far away. That’s how these things go a lot of the time. You can’t see into the future enough to know how good things could be or what kind of successes you might have,” Sandgren told ATPTour.com in Zhuhai last year. “There are so many stories where people are nowhere — in the entertainment industry or business, if you started your company in their garage. Did you ever imagine that you’d have a multi-billion dollar company? No, of course not. But you put in the work every day and you try to have a vision of the future that you can tolerate, and you try to manifest that somehow, and work hard and do all the right stuff in the hopes that something might materialise that’s worthwhile.”
When Sandgren left Tennessee, the Big Four had already established themselves at or near the top of the sport, providing a model to aspire to. The American went through a number of years during which playing them was not possible because of the level at which he was competing. But now he’s faceed Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray twice each, with his matches against the Serbian coming at Grand Slams. Of course it’s sunk in that he’s gotten to compete against tennis legends, but that’s not what hit him the most during his climb.
“It hit me more when I started playing ATP events that I was playing ATP events because I felt maybe a little out of place. But playing guys who I’ve watched play has been more comfortable because I feel like I belong more in the tournaments, so I’m just a guy playing,” Sandgren told ATPTour.com. “I’m just one of the guys who gets the opportunity to play a legend and that’s cool. That’s an enjoyable experience. I’ve played a lot of matches in relative obscurity, so to be able to have those opportunities is a lot of fun. It’s of course challenging because you have to figure out what the heck you’re going to do and there’s more people and there’s pressure that comes with that, sure, but it’s way more of an opportunity and an enjoyable experience to go out there and compete and entertain some people and have fun with it.”
Sandgren first played in a major main draw at 2017 Roland Garros, for which he earned a wild card. That was around the time period when he began to play more tour-level events. And at first, he didn’t always feel that he belonged at that level, even if his game was there. But that core belief has grown over time, and that has made a big difference during his Australian Open quarter-final runs.
“Getting the confidence to believe in myself, that I do actually belong on this stage, is crucial for competing,” Sandgren said. “I mean, if you don’t feel like you should be there, you’re probably not going to play very well.”
It certainly would be a confidence boost for Sandgren to hear what his next opponent, 20-time Slam winner Roger Federer, said after defeating Marton Fucsovics to set a clash against the World No. 100. They will play one another for the first time on Tuesday.
“I wonder why he’s not ranked higher, to be honest. Every time I see him play, I feel like he plays very well,” Federer said. “He’s got a lot of stuff in his game that he’s deserving of being higher.
“I like how he moves. Very explosive. Has a nice first serve as well. He can counter-punch, but also likes to go on the attack. Reminds me a little bit of the olden days when you would do the transition game very good and very quickly. I feel like that’s what I’ve seen a lot of him doing very well.”
Just four months ago, during a match against Murray in Zhuhai, Sandgren tore a ligament and suffered a stress fracture in a toe in his right foot. It would have been easy to get frustrated, as he had only 78 FedEx ATP Ranking points to defend from the end of the 2019 US Open through the end of last season. But due to the injury, he only earned 10, playing just one ATP Challenger Tour event after Zhuhai.
But Sandgren worked hard during the off-season, balancing training with recovery for his toe, and his conditioning has paid dividends, with his physical game holding up against some of the world’s best at Melbourne Park. And now, he’s earned a shot at Federer.
“I was kicking myself that I lost to a too-good Sam Querrey at Wimbledon [last year] in the Round of 16 because I would have played Rafa in the quarters. That would have been very special. I was a little upset I wasn’t able to get to that match,” Sandgren said. “It would be incredibly special to be able to play [Roger] at least once in my career. To play him on a big stage like [the] quarters of a Slam would be a ton of fun, really.”