Competing for the first time since narrowly missing out on what would have been a career-altering quarterfinal triumph over Roger Federer at the Australian Open, Tennys Sandgren lost a hard-fought, first-round match at the New York Open to countryman Steve Johnson, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (3) on Monday.
When I spoke with Sandgren the next morning, he was philosophical about his highly acclaimed performance against Federer—one in which he had seven match points—and frustrated that he could not convert any of three break points for 5-3 in the final set of his duel with Johnson.
Inescapably, the interview commenced with the focus on Sandgren’s meeting with Federer. Leading two sets to one, Sandgren had earned three match points with Federer serving at 4-5 in the fourth set, and four more in the ensuing tie-break. But, ultimately, Sandgren was denied a place in his first-ever Grand Slam semifinal by a renowned adversary who refused to make a mistake every time he was on the brink of defeat.
Sandgren was consoled by fans and fellow players after that exasperating defeat.
“People expressed their support to me and told me how much they enjoyed the match,” he says. “Some players did as well, because they could feel for me a little bit not getting that one done. It was cool that people could feel the emotional highs and lows of that match with me. I would have loved to have pulled it out, but it wasn’t to be.
“I feel like I represent the everyman, because people can relate to me in a way maybe they can’t as much with Roger, because he floats and glides out there and he is the G.O.A.T. Maybe the average fan identifies with me, and was playing Roger with me at least a little bit.”
While appreciating the passion he evoked in so many others, Sandgren laments his lost opportunities. He sees the seven match points clearly in the eye of his mind.
“I pressed on the first match point and missed a backhand in the net because I was going for a shot I probably shouldn’t have tried,“ he says. “After that I felt like I needed to play the match points more methodically, to grind more and get into the meat of the rally.
“I missed one inside-out forehand probably because I got a little tight. I rarely miss that shot, but there was nothing I could do but shrug it off. I would say I played half of the match points pretty well, but he played them a little better.
“On another match point—the only one I had on my serve—I hit a backhand volley and he didn’t move. That shocked me. I thought he was going to cover the forehand and didn’t want him to have a runner on his racket on the forehand, so I tried to stick one hard to his backhand. But he didn’t take a single step. He read it, hit a really good pass and then followed it forward and hit another good pass. That was tough for me because I played a pretty good point. He calmed down on all of the match points so well.”
WATCH—Sandgren’s seven match points against Federer:
One of his primary regrets about losing to Federer in Melbourne was not having the chance to face Novak Djokovic in the semis. He took a set off the Serbian in the second round of the 2018 US Open.
“I felt like tennis wise I was neck and neck with Novak, especially in the third set which I won.” Sandgren reflects. “But after that third set I was done. It was super humid and I had probably gone through ten shirts in three sets.
“Unfortunately for everyone, Novak just has that other gear and that axe waiting for you in the fourth and fifth sets, which is that he is probably in better shape than you. He has shown that time and again. He will show you quickly what’s up and separate illusion from reality.”
But Sandgren was not through analyzing the greatness of Djokovic, from his perspective.
“I think Novak is the best hard-court player of all time,” he says. “Aesthetically, Roger is the best ever, and there is nobody that anybody would want to watch more than Roger playing his tennis. It is beautiful to watch. But as far as meat-and-potatoes and just competing on a hard court, Novak is the best ever on hard courts.
“What we are doing playing tennis and what he does playing tennis isn’t the same thing. We are trying to move the ball round and hit winners, and he is putting these balls in annoying and difficult spots so you can’t hit a winner on him. He suffocates you slowly, but can also hit a forehand winner and a backhand down the line winner as well, plus he makes every return that he can touch. It is bizarre and incredible what he does.”
Despite these tough defeats, Sandgren can be proud of what he has achieved over the past three years—and his measuring stick need not only be Djokovic or Federer. His crucial transition year was 2017, when he moved into the Top 100 and concluded the season at No. 96 in the ATP Rankings. He garnered a wildcard into the French Open that year, where he played his first major.
In 2018, he toppled both Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem on his way to his first Australian Open quarterfinal, and ended that season at No. 61. A year later, he won his first ATP tournament in Auckland, moving up to a career-high of No. 41, reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon and finishing the year at No. 68.
Currently, Sandgren stands at No. 53, with an opportunity to climb considerably higher.
Sandgren believes the five-set win over Thiem at the 2018 Australian Open was critical in his evolution.
“That was definitely the first match against a top guy where I was able to hang in there the whole time, not go away and believe in myself. I had a match point in the fourth set but he saved it. But I came back to win the fifth. I will be proud of that long after my career is over.”
Examining his run to the fourth round of Wimbledon last year, Sandgren singles out his five-set, second-round win over the guileful Gilles. That victory led to a much easier one over the mercurial world No. 10 Fabio Fognini (6-3, 7-6, 6-3).
“That match with Simon was awesome,” Sandgren recalls. “Honestly, he was one of my favorite players growing up. Our builds are different but I loved watching him defend, and I feel part of the reason I am a good defender for my size is because I like guys who have phenomenal wheels and great feel, guys who move up and back well and laterally cover the court well.
“I have done well in five set matches. I was 4-0 before losing to Roger in Australia. I am a physical player and it is a tough matchup for anybody to beat me in a best-of-five-sets match.”
More than simply showcasing his fitness at Wimbledon in 2019, Sandgren was gratified to be back in the habit of winning. Earlier that season, he fell into a nine-match losing streak at the ATP level.
With that slump behind him, and another deep run Down Under—“There is nothing else to do but keep pressing forward,” he says of his inexplicable loss to Federer—Sandgren likes his odds of returning to the Top 50, and cracking the Top 40 for the first time.
Avoiding early-round losses, like Monday's on Long Island, is critical to that end. It's a match Sandgren will look to forget, although fans will remember this incredible tweener winner, which took the top spot on ESPN's SportsCenter Top 10:
Doing well at Masters tournaments, which Sandgren will automatically qualify for with his current ranking, is also important. Despite having done so well in three Slams, Sandgren has yet to move beyond the second round at a Masters.
“I have only played in six of those Masters 1000s and in 2018 I was struggling with a messed up arm and struggling to put my best self out there,” he says. “There are things I can do to get better at controlling myself when my mind seems to want to wander. I get frustrated at times.
“Everybody knows how to play and knows how to get the most out of themselves tactically. It is a matter of how well you can handle stressful moments. The better you can handle those moments, you give yourself maybe a 3-7% better shot at winning the match.”
At 28, Sandgren is primed to perhaps enjoy the most productive period of his career.
“I think I have at least five really good years in front of me and hopefully even more than that,” he says. “I would love to feel like the Top 20 is incredibly realistic for me, and the Top 10 would be like a push goal—not an over-achieving goal, but something that might surprise me a tiny bit if I get there, but not really.”