Tennys Sandgren: Houston finalist

A year ago in Houston, Tennys Sandgren was a Challenger player who qualified for his first ATP Tour main draw, at age 25.

This year, Sandgren returned as an Australian Open quarterfinalist – and the No. 8 seed.

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Saturday, the Tennessee native survived two tiebreakers with big-serving Croat Ivo Karlovic and advanced to his first career ATP Tour singles final.

It will be an all-American final, as defending champion Steve Johnson pushed back Taylor Fritz 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2 in the other Saturday semifinal.

Sandgren was down a break in the first set to Karlovic, the oldest semifinalist on the ATP Tour since Jimmy Connors back in 1993. But he bounced back in an impressive tiebreaker.

In the second set, up a break and on a roll, he tripped over his own feet by double-faulting three times in one game to give the break back.

But again, he mastered the tiebreak.

The defining moment may have come at 3-3, when Sandgren offered up a rare serve-and-volley – on a second serve. Thrown a curve, Karlovic was unable to make the pass after the fairly benign half-volley Sandgren was forced to make.

And after that, it was soon over.

South American swing pays off

After taking a small break in the wake of his surprising Australian Open success – and all the off-court drama that surrounded it – Sandgren went grinding.

The American went south to get his socks dirty, his first foray on the South American clay-court circuit.

It was a savvy, big-picture move.

With the rise in his ranking, Sandgren was playing with house money in the sense that he was guaranteed entry into the rest of the Grand Slams this year. So he could afford to invest some time in getting better.

It wasn’t a success, measured by victories. Sandgren went 2-3 through Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. And both those victories came when his opponent retired. Still, he pushed the clay-talented Fabio Fognini to a third-set tiebreak before losing in Rio.

And he got his clay reps in. It may well have been a contributing factor to his efforts in Houston this week. And it will serve him well with the European clay-court season coming up.

Sssuming he doesn’t withdraw, Sandgren must rush to Monte Carlo where he’ll make his Monaco debut against Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany.

He’s probably a little too far out in Madrid and Rome to get into the main draws there, even with withdrawals. But the qualifying looms, as does the French Open (where he won the USTA reciprocal wild card a year ago).

Sandgren will make his top-50 debut Monday, whatever happens in the Houston final.

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