Seven months ago, Tennys Sandgren suffered a heartbreaking defeat. The American let slip seven match points against 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. When he returned to the locker room, Sandgren stared at the carpet, later saying that in that moment he was “just holding on like on a raft in the middle of the ocean”.
The 2019 Auckland champion was certainly disappointed. However, the loss didn’t discourage him in the long term. Sandgren still cherishes opportunities to compete against the legends of the sport. In the third round of the Western & Southern Open, he will play World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, whom he was one point from facing in the Australian Open semi-finals.
“I was [upset] in Australia that I didn’t get to play [him] in the semis,” Sandgren said. “I was looking forward to potentially that happening once I made it to the point where that could be a thing.”
Sandgren was down a break in the third set against #NextGenATP star Felix Auger-Aliassime on Monday, but he rallied to beat the Canadian 6-7(4), 6-2, 7-6(5) in two hours and 50 minutes.
“Today, it crossed my mind a couple of times when the match wasn’t going my way or I was down. I was thinking, ‘Dude, you are going to be [annoyed at] yourself again if you don’t find a way to pull this one out, because you are going to get another opportunity to play one of the best ever,’” Sandgren said. “Any time that is on the table, I think it is enjoyable because that is why you do the training. That is why you put yourself out there, to test yourself. It is a blessing to be able to play against someone who is going to be one of the all-time greats.”
Sandgren has previously played Djokovic twice, at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018. The Serbian has won six of their seven sets by a margin of 6-3 or greater, but that doesn’t mean the American doesn’t enjoy the challenge. When he found out he would play Djokovic on Arthur Ashe Stadium two years ago, he called it “a bucket list thing”.
The World No. 55 didn’t always have such opportunities. For years, Sandgren toiled at Futures events and then on the ATP Challenger Tour, seeking a breakthrough. He earned his first tour-level win just after his 26th birthday. Could that give him an advantage playing someone like Djokovic without any fans in the crowd due to COVID-19?
“We are used to playing with nobody and we are used to not having that outside stimuli of people watching you, that extra pressure of eyes on you, which is very tangible,” Sandgren said. “At the same time, those guys are also magicians at getting themselves mentally up and prepared for matches. While I think it might be easier for someone like me, someone like Novak is extremely gifted at playing mental games with himself. I don’t think he is really going to have a problem getting up for these matches.
“Once he has committed to come and play, I think he is going to be fully in it. When you are able to hear somebody’s name and then change it to your own name in a match, I think you are probably pretty gifted at the mental side of the sport.”