At the age of 25, following a long run as a professional tennis player, after enduring his share of setbacks yet always facing the future purposefully, Tennys Sandgren has realized perhaps his largest dream. This American competitor has garnered a wildcard into the upcoming French Open, and so for the first time in his career he will appear in the main draw at a Grand Slam championship. That is no mean feat for a fellow who has tried to qualify for majors no fewer than twelve times, winning only three matches in all of those attempts. Despite all of those disappointments, Sandgren has kept plugging away diligently at his craft, finding ways to not only persevere but to turn himself into a more diversified player, never losing sight of what might be around the corner.
Now he can envision a path toward loftier success than he has ever known before. He stands at a career high of No. 114 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Over the past month, Sandgren sealed the USTA wildcard for Roland Garros by surpassing everyone else in a points race linked to three Challenger events in Sarasota, Tallahassee, and Savannah. He performed remarkably well in Sarasota and reached the final, lost in the first round at Tallahassee but reignited his game to win Savannah. His securing of the French Open wildcard is nothing less than the realization of a lifelong dream.
"It is one of those things I have actually dreamt about," says an appreciative Sandgren. "You wake up from a dream of playing on Centre Court at a Slam, of playing an American guy like Roddick or playing Federer. I would wake up with all of those good feelings that come from being at a Slam and then it would hit me: 'Oh, that didn't happen. I am still injured and I am still not there.' So now this is a reality and an experience I will actually fulfill. It is very special. It maybe hasn't sunk in yet but I am extremely excited about the opportunity in Paris and I am treating it like that. If I can do well there then I could add some coveted ranking points to keep moving forward, but no matter what it is going to be a wonderful experience and I am going to treat it with as much respect as I can muster."
Sandgren worked hard for his wildcard. In Sarasota, he opened his campaign with a critical 6-4, 6-7 (7), 7-6 triumph over his towering countryman Reilly Opelka. "That was huge, "he reflects. "He played really well. Reilly is obviously a great up and coming player. He is going to be a force soon if not already. I got away with one when I walked off the court with a victory. I was never down match point be he had a couple of 15-30's on my serve in the third, a couple of little windows that I was happy to sneak out of so I could give myself a chance in the tie-break. I was not touching his serve in that third set really at all. I played a good breaker to win. I got to the final but Frances [Tiafoe] was too good. He played a great match."
In Tallahassee, Henri Laaksonen toppled Sandgren 7-5, 6-4 in the first round. That did not sit well with the American. "I was disappointed in that match," says Sandgren."I thought I could have done a few things better to have pulled it out but it didn't go my way. It was not enjoyable being on the sidelines watching all of the American guys that week. Normally when I lose I just put my head down and get my practices in and just focus on getting ready for the next week. But I was watching a lot of matches that week and it was nerve wracking. Still, I was excited about the opportunity of moving on to the third week in Savannah and trying to control my fate."
He did just that. Starting his campaign in Savannah, Sandgren confronted fellow American Mackenzie McDonald in the first round and was pushed close to his limits. "I was down some 15-40's in the third set of that match. He was playing really well. It was the night match and it was windy and stormy. He was serving at 4-5, 0-30 and we played a point in the rain which I won for 0-40. Then it started pouring for like 30 seconds so we had to wait for about two minutes. I won it on my second match point at 15-40 [6-4, 3-6, 6-4] and then the rain poured down and there was no more tennis to be played that night. It was bizarre."
After defeating Christian Harrison in straight sets, it was time for Sandgren to take on Laaksonen again. As Sandgren recollects, "This was like the fifth time we had played since October. We know each other's games pretty well. At that point I knew what to expect. It was the best match we have played against each other. That one could have gone either way. It was crazy. We had a couple of 50-plus shot rallies. It was just physical tennis, with both of us moving each other around and getting after it. It was a hum-dinger. I was serving at 5-5, 15-40 in the third set and somehow got out of that game with a couple of aces and a running forehand winner, crazy stuff. It went to a tie-breaker and I was able to raise my level just enough to get through it [6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4).] I felt I had to play a little bit more aggressive in the tie-break because he had been an absolute wall and I had not been getting anywhere for what seemed like an hour. Thankfully I was able to execute at the end when I had to."
Having reached the semifinals, Sandgren has nearly guaranteed himself the French Open wildcard, but not quite. As he explains, "After winning that quarterfinal with Laaksonen, Bjorn Fratangelo had lost that morning or maybe it was the previous day. And then Stefan Kozlov lost while I was playing. Stefan or Dennis Novikov could have gotten the wildcard by winning the tournament even, I think, if I made the finals. So I got off the court and saw that Stefan had lost. Then when I was playing doubles later that afternoon Novikov went on court to play Tommy Paul. I lost in the doubles in a tight one and then I was able to watch Tommy play Dennis. Tommy won a tight one and that clinched the wildcard for me."
Yet Sandgren did not fall into complacency just because he had achieved the ultimate prize; he took his contest with Paul very seriously and was determined to win that battle. Once more, Sandgren found himself in a final set tie-break against a formidable opponent, and he came through again in a clutch situation, prevailing 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
As Sandgren remembers, "Tommy was playing better than me by the end of the match. I was up a break in the third set at 3-1. He broke me at 3-2 and I honestly don't think he made an unforced error again until he played a loose game with me serving at 5-6.. I had actually saved a match point at 4-5, 30-40 on my serve, going wide with my first serve. He went kind of short/middle with his return and I ran around it and went inside out winner. It was just kind of a quick one-two. I was thinking during that game that I was getting a little bit fried, but I got out of that game. By the end of those matches, especially on clay, your legs are definitely feeling it a little bit so maybe he was not moving quite as well out of the corners as he was throughout the match. I snuck a couple of net plays in at the end and pressed him a bit and managed to win it."
Why and how did Sandgren succeed in so many hard fought and close confrontations during that Challenger stretch? What was his approach from a mental point of view? He replies, " They [the close wins] kind of build on each other. I would like to think that mentally I gave myself a chance in those matches. All you can really do is put yourself in the situation and try and free yourself up mentally as much as you can to finish strong and play your game at the end instead of pressing or getting tighter. It is kind of a coin toss in those matches so confidence and momentum are huge. So you win one and then one turns to two and two turns to three. You are able to stay maybe a fraction calmer than the other guy."
In the final of Savannah, Sandgren defeated Joao Pedro Sorgi 6-4, 6-3. "I had never played him before but he fights super hard and it is a daunting thing to see how he is in it 110% on every point. I was calm and able to get down to business and take care of my service games. Physically I felt pretty good but mentally I was pretty exhausted. I was a little drained by then but my coach Jim Madrigal encouraged me to do my best and fight as hard as I can. I had already secured a big deal with the wildcard for the French Open. He told me that I might be tired but there were 32 ranking points on the table so I should try to focus on that and get it done."
Madrigal will play an important role in Sandgren's career over the coming months. As Sandgren clarifies, "I have known him for a long time and he has been the coach at Belmont in Nashville,Tennessee for a long time. He had done some traveling with Brian Baker in the past and I know Brian very well. We have practiced together a lot. Jim understands what I am doing, what I am going after and what my mental process is. So I asked him to come down for the finals of Sarasota and then for Tallahassee and Savannah. He was with me for all of those long matches we discussed and he was very supportive. He definitely helped pull me through. After the first one with McDonald he said, 'Man, I feel like I just aged ten years in two hours!' Those matches are decided by very small percentage points so any littler tiny edge I can get is significant."
And so Madrigal will move forward with Sandgren, accompanying his charge in Lyon as he plays an ATP World Tour 250 event there and then, of course, in Paris. Sandgren is still figuring out his post-French Open schedule prior to competing in the qualifying on the grass for Wimbledon. As Sandgren says, "I know Jim will be there for some of those weeks ahead. We haven't set anything in stone yet for the summer but I definitely want him to travel with me for as many weeks as we can make work."
Sandgren is delighted he can now afford a coach, which was not the case in the past. As he points out when asked about the financial challenges he has confronted over the course of his career, "I have been able to fund my career for the most part with my own earnings. I have been blessed that finances haven't been a big burden for me. I hadn't been able to afford a coach for a while [before Madrigal] but now I have more resources. I am grateful I can bring somebody on as a coach on a more regular basis. The French Open wildcard is huge in that regard with a larger pay scale than I am used to."
Expanding on how he has managed to deal with the challenges of playing pro tennis without making exorbitant sums of money. He says, "You travel the smartest that you can. Any place that is within 13 hours I usually drive my own car there, After I lost in Houston on Wednesday after qualifying I flew home on Thursday and then drove from Nashville,Tennessee to Sarasota, Florida on Friday to get ready to play on Monday. It is 13 hours from Nashville to Sarasota. Also, a lot of the American Challengers tournaments help you with housing and I have gotten to know some awesome and wonderful families that have put me up at different locations."
All through his career, Sandgren has been not only an admirable professional but also an individualist. His long hair is a standout feature these days. Asked about that, Sandgren good-naturedly says, "I have always done some different stuff. I had a mohawk in college for a couple of months during my first season and that was pretty cool. Recently I have just been growing it out and it has been over three years since I had my last legit haircut that actually took away length. But how many more opportunities will I have to grow out my hair? Who knows? I may lose it someday so this might be my only chance to hold onto it."
Sandgren also stands out among his peers for other reasons, including his name. He was named after his paternal great grandfather, who emigrated from Sweden to the United States. Tennys is pronounced just like tennis, the game he plays for a living. "People enjoy it," he says of his first name. "It is fun and interesting and different. It has worked out well for me. My parents both played tennis and they thought Tennys was unique. They probably thought they would introduce me to tennis and see if I wanted to play but there was definitely not a serious plan about me becoming a serious player in the beginning."
His mother, Lia, coached him all across his junior tennis years. As Sandgren comments, "It was an interesting dynamic, She did a phenomenal and fantastic job. She did not pick up the game until she was in hear early thirties so her tennis background wasn't super extensive. But she introduced me to the game and we kind of grew in the sport together. If we had a particular disagreement on a particular technique there were not that many resources at hand but there was John Yandell's web site with extensive slow motion videos so we would look at the Roddick forehand or the Ferrero forehand and see how that matched up with what we were doing."
Elaborating on his tennis relationship with his mother, Sandgren says, "We both have pretty similar personalities in that we are stubborn and strong willed. We both are passionate. Maybe if we see something differently it can get heated in its own way but we always understood that and managed it as best we could. We were able to accomplish a lot together. I basically grew up playing with a ball machine. My older brother, Davey, was a very good college player so he went to college when I was just about 15 years old so it was basically myself and my Mom. I would use the ball machine for hours on end."
The hard work did not go to waste. Sandgren achieved significantly in the juniors, winning the National 16 Clay Courts and the National 16 Championships, taking the latter title in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He had other notable junior triumphs and his mother was always there to guide him. Out went Sandgren into the world of college tennis. He played two years at the University of Tennessee.
As he recalls of that experience, "When I was there I really wasn't having any success in Futures tournaments so I figured why should I bang my head against the wall doing that when I could play for a very good college team with an accomplished coaching staff. I just weighed what could be better at that point. But after my second season of college tennis, I won back to back $10,000 Futures tournaments over the summer. That kind of put me on notice so I just made the decision to play full time. I basically had the intent that if I did not do well I would just to back to school.I made the semis of the NCAA singles event that spring if 2011 so I was playing well, and then I won those two Futures events so it clicked in my mind that I could do this and I felt I was ready to make this my full time goal and career."
In March of 2014, Sandgren hit a major roadblock when he had hip surgery. The timing could not have been worse. Sandgren remarks, "It was a couple of months after I won my first Challenger and I was at a career high ranking at the time but unfortunately I hurt my hip. I was worried. You don't know exactly how you are going to bounce back. A really big part of my game is being able to move well. The rehab took about four or five months and then I was able to practice and play my first tournament. I was away from tournaments for seven months. Having a surgery like that takes away your confidence and momentum. I felt in a sense that I was starting from scratch."
Having missed so much time, Sandgren finished 2014 at No. 660 in the world. By the conclusion of 2015, he was back to No. 261 and he stood at No. 191 at the end of last year. Now Sandgren is poised to crack the top 100 for the first time ever.
He speaks of that pursuit this way: "My first goal this year was to try and hunt that top 100. Now that is within a tournament or two of my grasp. It is interesting to be on the cusp. It is something I always thought was possible but to be on the doorstep is cool. It is gratifying that the hard work is paying off. I certainly think that my game and my skill-set I bring to the table is good enough to push higher than just the top 100."
One benefit throughout his career has been playing doubles regularly. He believes that enhances his singles play. "It has always been important for me to play doubles. Before my hip injury I was about No. 110 in doubles so my doubles ranking was always consistently higher than my singles. If you don't have a good week in singles winning matches or tournaments in doubles builds your confidence."
In the final analysis, what will it take for Tennys Sandgren to climb up the ladder and make the most of his potential over the second half of his twenties and on into his early thirties? He answers, "I think for a bigger guy at just over 6'2" and about 195 pounds, I play really good defense and move really well. I think I probably play like I am 160 pounds [soaking] wet sometimes. But moving forward I need to continue to make sure my court positioning is good and I am being aggressive when it is required. I want my mid-court game to improve and my transition game as well. My mentality is to just make sure I am giving myself the best chance to succeed, to stay focussed and to leave it all on the court."