Tennys Sandgren's surprise run has been a long time coming

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Tennys Sandgren has been the story of the Australian Open thus far. (AP)

MELBOURNE — The last remaining American man in the 2018 Australian Open singles draw is… Tennys Sandgren. Surprised? So is he.

“I almost want to ask you how surprised are you that I'm still here. It's definitely surprising,” Sandgren told TENNIS.com.

The 26-year-old has spent his fair share of time toiling away on the ITF Pro Circuit and ATP Challenger tour. He’s done the college stint, and labored through a comeback after surgery (on a torn hip labrum in 2014).

“I think everybody has to deal with some sort of injury because it's such a physical game,” he said. “To have a result like this is really special.”

The Tennessee native been entangled in the sport from the age of five, and no, we are not going to talk about his name (it’s Swedish). Obviously, he has many years of playing experience, just not on the ATP tour.

Since turning pro in 2011 after two years at the University of Tennessee, Sandgren has won 11 Futures titles and three ATP Challengers. Cracking the Top 100 in November was a huge milestone for him (now he’s going to jump to at least No. 70).

“I almost retired. That's it, I’m done,” he said, jokingly. “That's all I've wanted. Once I hit that mark it was a little bit of an adjustment period. That was my goal, what do I aim for now? That's been my bar since I was like 14, you can't just make a new one.”

He played his first ATP main-draw match last year in Houston and this week marked his first Grand Slam win. It was followed by two more, including a stunning demolition of Stan Wawrinka, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, and a four-set win over Maximilian Marterer on Saturday.

“When I first started out, a result like this to me would have been like unbelievable, the most amazing thing ever,” Sandgren said. “Now, obviously it's still amazing, it's still just tennis. I play it for fun and to enjoy it. I'm definitely a bit more grounded now in my career than I would have been earlier.”

The American has been boosted by the right support team, which includes coach Jim Madrigal (who coached at Belmont University). Sandgren is based in Nashville and only started working with Madrigal last spring after years of flying solo.

“It seems like good things are happening,” Sandgren said. “It certainly is different having somebody on the road versus not because it’s what I'm used to. It’s a challenge for me because I have to be a bit more lenient with somebody else.”

His mom, Lia, is South African and she was his first coach growing up after she caught the tennis bug in her 30s. Sandgren was homeschooled to focus on tennis, but before you leap to any conclusions, he’s beyond adjusted socially, and no, he isn’t upset about missing prom.

“It works if they have your best interest,” he said about having a parent as a coach. “She's not here. She's a very realistic person so when I’m playing in a Slam she's thinking: Well it's only for a couple of days. If she knew I'd be making fourth round then she would have come.”

Sandgren has gone from becoming a journeyman to turning into a Grand Slam hero in six days. Sitting here in Week 2 of the Australian Open—wearing a Metallica T-shirt and a grin—he’s maturely absorbing the fact that all the years of his sacrifices and hard work have paid off.

“I haven't ever really been close to retiring. I've threatened myself, that kind of thing,” Sandgren said. “There were moments where I'm struggling or not healthy: It's like OK is this the best way I can spend my 20s? Is this something that's going to help me in the future or I might as well be fishing or gaming.

“I made sure it was indeed something that I was passionate about. I think I made the right decision to keep going.”

While some players are guarded, particularly in press, Sandgren is affable and not afraid to be a little different. His ATP bio lists his favorite sports team as the Unicorns of Love video game team. If he wasn’t playing tennis, he would be “a failed pro gamer.” That’s not a joke.

“In my dreams—it's not the backup plan because I'm not good enough, unfortunately,” Sandgren said. “It's like the idea of going on vacation forever, it's not a realistic thing. It'd be fun if I was good enough.”

He didn’t bring his gaming laptop to Australia, due to logistics. But that’s OK since he hasn’t had much spare time with all this winning.

No matter what happens in the next round, or what his next goal ends up being, Sandgren is never going to forget the 2018 Australian Open, and no one who meets him is likely to forget him.

“I have settled on just kind of what I always settle on: To keep getting better and try and affect people positively sometimes. Don't be so negative all the time,” he said. “If people enjoy watching me play, or if I can have a good interaction with somebody, that's a win.”


Read Joel Drucker and Nina Pantic on TENNIS.com as they report from the Australian Open, and watch them each day on The Daily Mix:

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