Sandgren: I Was A 'Raft In The Middle Of The Ocean' After Federer Loss
Tennys Sandgren suffered a heart-breaking defeat in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, letting slip seven match points against 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer. The American was just one point away from reaching his first major semi-final.
But instead of walking off the court a winner,, Sandgren returned to the locker room and stared at the carpet, stunned.
“I’m just holding on like on a raft in the middle of the ocean,” Sandgren told ATPTour.com, describing his thoughts at the time. “I don’t take losses particularly well in general, that one being extremely difficult. It’s still a loss and I’m still familiar with the downward emotional spike from a tough loss like that.
“It was just holding on to the important stuff and realising that it’s just one match. Yeah, it would have been sweet to win and it would have been awesome to make my first semi and all those good things, but it’s still a great tournament. Hopefully I’ll have another look and if not, oh well, too bad. I tried my best. There’s not much else you could do other than that and hope it works out for you.”
After all, there was a time when such opportunities seemed far away. Sandgren did not win his first tour-level match until the 2017 Citi Open, just after his 26th birthday. For years, he toiled on the ATP Challenger Tour, trying to build up his game and improve his FedEx ATP Ranking.
“It’s a tough gig. It’s a tough road. There are a lot of really good players,” Sandgren said. “You’ve got to put in your time to get better and improve. Unless you have those big results early, you’ve got to work and try to keep getting better as a player and keep improving and figuring out where you can make gains. That’s kind of how I spent four, five years on [the ATP Challenger] Tour.”
Sandgren did not crack the Top 100 until 12 June 2017. Since then he has reached his maiden ATP Tour final (2018 Houston), won his first title (2019 Auckland), and made two Grand Slam quarter-finals (2018, ‘20 Australian Open). But the American does not forget the long road he travelled to get there, and how difficult that grind was.
So why did he keep pushing forward?
“Partly stupidity. Not really sure what else to do. I felt like I’d already invested so much of my time into tennis in 20 something years that I’m probably as good at this as I’m for sure ever going to be at anything else, so I might as well stick it out, keep training hard, keep working and give it my best shot and just see what happens,” Sandgren said. “It’s either work hard or give up. Those are the two options. The option wasn’t to take it easy. There was nothing to rest on, so just kind of kept getting after it, kept working hard just to see if I could improve and see how good I could get.”
That mindset put him in position to play on Rod Laver Arena against an all-time great in Federer. But not only did he get to compete in that moment, he was on the brink of a major upset.
“If somebody would have told me that I would have had seven match points on Roger in the quarters of Australia while I was playing Challengers and I didn’t win, I would have been so gosh darn upset with myself,” Sandgren said, cracking a laugh. “Quarters of Australia, yes, but the seven match points thing, I don’t know if that would have helped me that much at the time.
“I find it pretty incredible what can happen if you keep working hard and over the course of time and who knows how long it will take in whatever it is that you’re doing, but if you treat it as a day-to-day thing, you really have no idea how far you can go in anything. Four, five, six years is a long time. It’s a lot of time and a lot of things can change and [you can] become, I don’t want to say anything that you want to be, but close to it.”
Sandgren had never practised with Federer before they played in Melbourne. He’d watched the Swiss star countless times, but actually being on court with him in a competitive setting conjured surprising thoughts.
“It was funny, I was thinking during the match, a really good buddy of mine, who is the assistant coach at Vanderbilt, Ryan Lipman… he’s got a pretty similar game: one-handed backhand, slice, likes to come forward, likes to serve and volley. We played in juniors, he’s from Nashville as well, and we played I don’t know how many times, 50, 100 times in practice, tournament matches, things like that,” Sandgren said. “So while we were playing, it’s obviously different and Roger is just on a different planet, but some of the point structures and how we’d go back and forth, it felt oddly familiar to me and I was thinking that during the match. I thought about my buddy and I was like, “I feel like I’ve played some of these points before,’ the short slice, dragging me in, things like that were things that I’d seen a bunch from my friend. We battled a lot together, so it was kind of surreal in that way.”
When Sandgren returned home to Tennessee after his loss, he went to dinner with Lipman in Nashville and told him that story.
“He was cracking up and I was like, ‘I was actually going to mention that if I had won the match in the presser, but I did not, so I wasn’t able to’,” Sandgren said. “He was kicking himself.”
Now, the World No. 53 needs to move on. His loss against Federer will remain in his memory forever, and it may still sting, but Sandgren competes this week on the other side of the globe at the New York Open, where he’ll play countryman Steve Johnson on Monday evening.
“Every week is different. Every week is a new week, so you’ve got to treat it like the count is back to zero and you’re just back on the grind,” Sandgren said. “Australia was great, it was a fantastic two weeks for me, but this is a new week and guys are fresh and hungry. If I’m not one of those guys that is also hungry to be out here and to compete and do well, then it’s not going to go well for me. So I need to keep that humble mentality and keep working hard.”
Did You Know?
Sandgren entered the Australian Open as the World No. 100. By reaching the quarter-finals, he soared to No. 56, and now he is up to No. 53.