American tennis was dead.
But Tennys is alive and kicking.
Let me explain. Just a week ago the US endured one of its worst starts in Slam history, when 14 American women went packing in the first round and the other top names in men’s tennis also would soon fall. The Aussie Open is supposed to be the “Happy Slam.” But this year there sure were a lot of gloomy American faces around this Aussie town. By the second week of the open, only US Open finalist Madison Keys was still battling away on the women’s side. She hadn’t lost a set, and today, after a slow start, she used her graceful power to dismiss the No. 8 seed, France’s Caroline Garcia. Now she’s a trendy pick to win it all. It’s said that getting to one Slam final helps you to eventually win it all. Next she’ll face 2016 champ Angie Kerber.
So American tennis, on the women’s side, is far from dead.
And Tennys is not dead either. Before this year’s Aussie Open, No. 97 Tennys Sandgren had won Challengers in Tiburon and Tempe, among others. But he’d never won a match in a Slam. If you wanted to call on the cavalry and get some guy to save the day for American men’s tennis, you’d probably choose a veteran named Isner, Sock or Johnson – not Tennys.
Even after Sandgren shocked former champion Stan Wawrinka there were snickers. Stan, it was noted, was hurt. So maybe we should focus on the fun fact that (thanks to his Swedish great grandfather Tennys,) Sandgren’s first name is the same name as the sport he plays.
All the while many were excited. His mom back home was so elated that when she danced in celebration earlier in the tourney, she slipped and fell on her basement pool table, cracked some ribs, got a slight concussion and went to the hospital. All the while, her son was generating excitement in the American camp by reaching the quarters, thanks to a thrilling 6-2. 4-6, 7-6(4), (7)6-7, 6-3 win over No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem. USTA President Katrina Adams tweeted: “Soooooooo Happy for @TennysSandgren What a performance and gallant effort #heart #grit #tenacity #patience…#USTA.”
When Inside Tennis asked Sandgren which of those five qualities was the most important, the 25-year-old said, “All of them were necessary. [But] patience was a big one because Thiem was doing a lot of cool things, especially on his serve. I didn’t get a lot of looks…I had to just keep level-headed, keep holding onto my service games…I was telling myself to stay calm, don’t burn too much energy on stuff you don’t need to, just focus on what you have to do. I think patience was a big deal.”
No kidding. In the fourth set tiebreak, Tennys had a match point. But Thiem hit a sublime down-the-line backhand. Sandgren lost the fourth but broke through to win the fifth. The little known man, who played No. 3 on his University of Tennessee team, lost in qualifying for four years in a row and who had beaten two top ten players in a week, noted that his obscurity was an asset. A 1000-1 shot, he said, “I have that going for me that guys don’t know how I’m going to play, and I’m using that to my advantage just to keep riding that wave.’ But even Tennys wasn’t sure his out-of-nowhere run was for real. He told the press corps: “I don’t know if this is a dream or not. But all you guys are here and I’m not in my underwear, so maybe it’s not.”
Sandgren is only the second guy in 20 years to reach the quarters on his debut. And he will next meet another unlikely fellow, unseeded Hyeon Chung. In three tight sets, the Korean, who is ranked No. 58, ousted the No. 14 seed and six-time winner Novak Djokovic, who was ailing from a sore elbow. Truth be told, we Americans are now trying to put aside the fact that Sandgren lost to Chung just two weeks ago in Auckland.
For now, red, white and blue fans are thrilled. Thanks to Madison and a lad named Tennys, American tennis is not dead.