The last American man standing in the Australian Open is aptly named and virtually unknown.
Tennys Sandgren (yes, pronounced TENNIS) is through to the fourth round of the season’s first Grand Slam, the loftiest height of a seven-year career mostly spent toiling in the outback of the game.
“It’s kind of silly, right? It feels kind of silly,” said the 26-year-old from Tennessee after he had beaten Maximilian Marterer in the third round on Saturday. “I didn’t think I’d make the second week when I came here. I was hoping to play a few good matches or try to get my first win, things like that. But to realistically set my sights on a second week wasn’t on the cards.”
The cards never have been certain for Sandgren. He was born, raised and still lives in Gallatin, Tennessee, about 30 miles from Nashville. His first name is taken from his Swedish grandfather, who was not a tennis player.
He was inspired by older brother Davey to play the game. They were both coached by their mother early on with Tennys having a decent, but not sparking junior career. They both played for the University of Tennessee with Tennys turning pro after his sophomore year in 2011.
Success was difficult to come by, his progress significantly slowed by hip surgery in 2014. There wasn’t much to suggest he would be a successful pro. Playing ITF Futures and ATP Challenger events, his career was a grind. But he did grind out three Challenger victories. That last victory at Savannah early last season earned him a French Open wild-card challenge and berth in the main draw at Roland Garros, where he lost in the first round. He also played in his first ATP main draw event at Houston, and lost to Marin Cilic in the first round of the U.S. Open.
Now here he is, carrying the sole American men’s flag into the second week of the Australian. Gone in the first round: John Isner, Jack Sock and up-and-comer Frances Tiafoe. Gone in the second round: Sam Querrey.
“To be the last American left in the round of 16, I would like it if there were more,” said Sandgren. “We have a lot of really good players coming up. I’m sure we’re going to see multiple men in [the] round of 16 and quarters of slams going forward. We have a ton of really, really good players that are working hard. To be the last one out of that group is pretty cool.”
After beating Jeremy Chardy in the first round, Sandgren came up with the biggest win of his career, taking down Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka — coming off a five-month layoff for knee surgery — in three sets. When Wawrinka was winning the U.S. Open title in 2016, Sandgren was having a few beers in a bar back home.
On Monday he takes on Austria’s Dominic Thiem, the fifth seed who at 24 is touted as a potential multiple Grand Slam winner.
“I’ll be playing on a big court probably. That will help me,” said Sandgren. “I’ve seen a bigger court this week already. That certainly will help. On a bigger stage, having control of my nerves, those kind of things will help.
As far as tactics, not really. He’s kind of a different animal right now. He’s in great shape. He’s playing well, doing a lot of really cool things, which is what he normally does. We’ll see.”
Regardless of whether Sandgren wins, he has improved his tennis prospects by a mile. He was ranked 97th coming into Australia. After reaching the fourth round, he will be ranked somewhere in the 60s exiting Melbourne, giving him access to the Slams and biggest ATP tournaments like Miami and Indian Wells.
“One of my goals I guess going into this year was to make sure, going forward from where I’ve been at, is to make sure I can get into the main draw of the Slams. That’s a big deal,” said Sandgren. “A big prize money increase, good opportunities, things like that. That’s kind of it. Play on a big stage, enjoyable things that you can kind of fall back on, say I had a good career, I played a bunch of slams, things like that.”
And made a name for himself, Tennys.