Emotional Johnson defends Houston title

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The ATP tournament in Houston, Texas was the last one Steve Johnson’s father, Steve Sr., saw him play on television.

Less than a month later, aged just 58, Steve Sr. passed away suddenly, in his sleep.

So Johnson’s emotions after defeating countryman Tennys Sandgren in a hard-fought physical battle were completely understandable. And they added an extra layer of pathos to his defence of the Houston title.

Afterwards, he told the media in Houston of the phone call from his father – also a tennis coach who laid down the groundwork for his game – after he won.

 “He was just so excited. He’s somebody that I’d still like to call today,” Johnson said. “He’d tell me he was proud of me and be ready for the wedding next weekend.”

Sporting moments

Johnson and good friend Sandgren, who was playing in his first career ATP Tour final just a year after qualifying for his first ATP Tour main draw at the same event, were friendly foes.

As Johnson pulled away following their hug at the net, another wave of emotion hit him. So he went back in for a little more love. It was a touching sporting moment between two players who had just gone toe-to-toe for nearly 2 1/2 hours, for a prize that meant everything to both of them.

After that, Johnson headed over towards coach Craig Boynton and his physio for some more love. 

Johnson

Johnson is marrying longtime girlfriend Kendall Bateman next weekend. And so, for the second consecutive year, he’s missing some of the big tournaments on the European clay-court circuit.

JohnsonLast year, it was for a devastating reason. This year, it’s for a joyous one.

Sandgren had to get going tout de suite to make the long trip to Monte Carlo, where he is due to play Philipp Kohlschreiber in the first round.

As he said earlier in the week, that’s a champagne problem.

For Johnson, defending his title is a load off. His ranking drops only one spot on Monday. Had the American, say, lost in the first round, he’d have been down to No. 75 and that changes the dynamic of an entire season.

Sandgren will make his top-50 debut Monday, debuting at No. 47.

(Screen shots from TennisTV)

Tennys Sandgren: Houston finalist

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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.

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.

Sandgren resurfaces for radio interview

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American Tennys Sandgren, who had a career performance in Australia but fell into the social media rabbit hole in the process, surfaced on Tuesday.

The 26-year-old from Gallatin, Tennessee returned home after reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals. And he then withdrew from his next two tournaments – the Dallas Challenger and the ATP Tour event in Quito, Ecuador.

Under normal circumstances, he’d have been eliminated from the Australian Open early enough that he no doubt would have made those dates.

But these were not normal circumstances. And Sandgren also had some reflecting to do after making some questionable calls in handling the situation when Twitter devotees put his Tweeting history under the microscope.

The American, who’s been training at the USTA facility in Lake Nona, Fla.,  did an interview Tuesday lasting 14 minutes, 41 seconds with a couple of guys on sports radio WNML in Knoxville, Tennessee.

 

Through those 14 minutes and 41 seconds, not a single question was asked about the other side of Sandgren’s Australian Open experience.

Of course, Sandgren no doubt knew that going in. It may even have been a stipulation. So it was a smart choice on his part.

They talked about a lot of things, including the weather in Australia, how Sandgren kept his cool on the court, and how you string your rackets more loosely when the weather is cooler.

Asking the tough questions

“What was it like to see so many different developments around the bracket (draw)?”

“You served terrifically, until you got to the quarterfinals, and I wonder if you think that was the most improved part of your game since you left Tennessee.”

“Does this help your confidence going forward, or does it add pressure, expectations?”

“Is it a surreal feeling to be playing in Rod Laver arena, with Rod Laver in attendance?

“(Tour life) sounds like a great travelogue. Are there parts you can’t wait to get back to to enjoy the cuisine or the culture?”

“Best surface? Hard courts, grass or clay?

“What about grass does not suit you?”

Sandgren is ramping up the tennis again. He’ll do the rest of the South American clay-court swing in Buenos Aires,  Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. And then he returns to the U.S. for Indian Wells and Miami.

This time a year ago, Sandgren’s itinerary was San Francisco, Tempe, Drummondville, Guadalajara and Leon. All on the Challenger circuit.

At a career-best No. 54 in the rankings, the landscape has changed.

Sandgren’s Oz Open a statement run

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MELBOURNE, Australia – The last 48 hours, since unseeded American Tennys Sandgren reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, have been … eventful.

The dream run ended for the 26-year-old Wednesday at the hands of Hyeon Chung, a 21-year-old from Korea that Sandgren said “will be holding some trophies in the near future.”

First up, though, Sandgren had something to say about all of the social-media drama, and the trickle-down effect in the media coverage.

He walked into the main press conference room – a somewhat unusual but necessary room assignment for a losing, unseeded player with mobile phone in hand. And he said he had a statement to make.

And that he did. Sandgren read it rapid-fire from the screen of his phone. He looked up every few seconds or so at the large, predominantly male gathering in front of him. His eyes were wide, his jaw firmly set.

Sandgren’s statement

“You seek to put people in these little boxes so that you can order the world in your already assumed pre-conceived ideas. You strip away any individuality for the sake of demonizing by way of the collective.

With a handful of follows and some likes on Twitter, my fate has been sealed in your minds. To write an edgy story, to create sensationalist coverage, there are few lengths you wouldn’t go to to mark me as the man you desperately want me to be.

You would rather perpetuate propaganda machines instead of researching information from a host of angles and perspectives while being willing to learn, change, and grow. You dehumanize with pen and paper and turn neighbor against neighbor. In so doing, you may actually find you’re hastening the hell you wish to avoid, the hell we all wish to avoid.

It is my firm belief that the highest value must be placed on the virtue of each individual, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. It’s my job to continue on this journey with the goal of becoming the best me I can and to embody the love Christ has for me, for I answer to Him and Him alone.”

It was … quite a speech, and a press-conference moment that you’d be hard-pressed to find a precedent for. It’s unlikely that someone advised him to do it. And it smacked of not a little bit of naiveté, because if anything it only fanned the social-media flames.

Testy moments

Sandgren then said he would be happy to answer questions about the tennis match. But there was a lot to process. there. The palpable silence threatened to end the press conference before it began.

But in the end, there were some tennis questions for a player who squeaked into the main draw, and got to the second Wednesday.

Sandgren’s face immediately switched the grim off and the congenial on, as he talked about the biggest professional week of his life to an international group of journalists.

These were, it should be noted, the people he had just accused of “demonizing him by way of the collective”, being sensationalistic, and “dehumanizing him.”

Which, generally speaking, was actually not the case. So the barbs were being aimed at the wrong target.

It was quite the moment – to say the least.

Luckily, most journalists are not the types to take too much personally.

Not handled ideally

The situation could have been better handled by a moderator taking control of the proceedings and announcing that Sandgren would make a statement, and that the questions that followed had to be limited to tennis.

That’s common practice in tennis press conferences when something controversial occurs off court.

Tennis folks would prefer anything even slightly controversial not come up at all. They’d much rather hear “What do you think about your next opponent?” a few hundred times a tournament instead.

You can go back to the time when Steffi Graf would enter the room at Wimbledon in the middle of one of her father Peter’s off-court situations. The moderator would begin the conference with something along the lines of, “In order not to cause the lady champion undue distress, questions must be limited to tennis matters only.”

In this case, Sandgren had to take it upon himself to handle the situation.  

As an alternative, he could have taken a few thousand out of the big chunk of prize money he earned this week and just paid the fine for skipping the press conference. But he didn’t. 

Creative editing

However, the clip of the American reading his opening statement was mysteriously excised from the heavily-edited official press-conference video posted shortly afterward.

Sandgren gave full credit to an opponent he believes will go very, very far. 

“(Chung) is a fantastic player. … It’s such a fun challenge because he does so many cool things with how he moves and how he returns and how he plays with his forehand. So it was kind of like an extremely difficult puzzle to try to figure out. I wasn’t able to figure it out, but I enjoyed trying,” he said.

“I did a lot of really cool things today, I thought. He kind of forces you, I mean me, to kind of play on this edge where you’re kind of doing some really cool things, and then you can fall off it and make some mistakes because he’s forcing you to play so well,” he added. “So I was happy with how a lot of the match went, and then I just wasn’t able to hold on in some of the deeper moments in the sets. I was happy with how I performed today.”

New ranking, new territory

Sandgren’s ranking will rise more than 40 places, to approximately No. 55 in the world. That his schedule likely will follow a different path.

He had entered the Challenger event in Newport Beach, Calif. this week, but obviously withdrew given he was still alive at the Australian Open. He also is entered in a Challenger in Dallas next week, but it sounded Wednesday as though he will withdraw from that.

The week after that, Sandgren had planned to kick off a four-tournament tour on the red clay in South America: Quito, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and then Sao Paulo.

For now, he doesn’t know how he’ll deal with all the changes to his tennis life – the downside of the increased focus on his social media can come with some upside in terms of potential sponsorship opportunities and, obviously, a higher quality of tournaments on his schedule.

“I have no idea. I’m going to go home and enjoy time with my family, turn off my phone, you know, just really reflect on the last two weeks, reflect where my life has gone to, where I’m at, where I am in this stage at 26, who I am as a person, who I want to continue trying to be, where I want to go in the sport, where I want to go as a man,” he said.

“I constantly try to be introspective as to what’s going on in my life. This has been a lot of information to digest in the last few weeks. So I need to take ample time to do so so I can move forward correctly.”

The road to a Slam quarterfinal – a coach’s view

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MELBOURNE, Australia – If you go from being one of the last acceptances on the original entry list for a Grand Slam tournament to being one of the final eight some 10 days later, there’s a story.

And the story of American Tennys Sandgren at the Australian Open is a story of teamwork, with the help of a couple of guardian angels.

“He had probably been lingering between 150 and 180 (in the rankings) for two, three years for a variety of reasons including injuries, and traveled alone. Right before I started he started to make pretty good run.  When we started working together we were able to make some strides to his game, and to his head,” Sandgren’s coach, Jim Madrigal, told Tennis.Life.

“He got to a crossroads where he had competed pretty much alone for a couple of years, and felt like it was now or never, that he needed to invest in this. That he may lose on this proposition but he wanted to give himself the best chance do well.”

Sandgren had a couple of people who believed him. One was Emeric McDonald, the managing director of a Bay-area tech investment firm. McDonald and another man, whom Madrigal would not name, offered support of all kinds, including financial. 

quarterfinal
McDonald (left), Sandgren and Madrigal (right) on the practice court the day before Sandgren upset No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem in five sets at the Australian Open. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Madrigal, 46, was the longtime tennis coach at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee who also worked with Sandgren’s fellow Tennessean Brian Baker. He started with Sandgren at the beginning of April 2017.

“They always believed in Tennys, and helped fund this investment. So that he can somebody travel and guide and help him with his journey,” Madrigal said. “And it’s paid off.”

The 26-year-old will be at a career-best ranking of No. 55 next Monday, with that he has done in defeating Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem on his way to the quarterfinals in Melbourne. 

Should he defeat Hyeon Chung, the unseeded but rising Korean who upset six-time champion Novak Djokovic in straight sets Monday night, he would rise to the top 40. That would basically get him straight in to every single Masters 1000-level tournament. That’s a huge leap in level (and income).

But beating Chung is a tall order. And no one knows that more than Madrigal.

Sandgren played Chung as a lucky loser in the first round of the tuneup event in Auckland, New Zealand two weeks ago. 

But it went three sets. And it was a benchmark match that told Sandgren and Madrigal that they were on the right path.

One match at a time, a great opportunity

Here’s Madrigal on Sandgren’s road through the Australian Open draw, and on how good he thinks Chung is going to be.

 

The American has had an unexpectedly dramatic 24 hours, as his social-media feed on Twitter has gotten more attention and notoriety than he could ever have anticipated.

His reaction was to purge his account.

On Monday night, Sandgren had 6,599 followers, 4,838 Tweets and 9,791 “liked” Tweets.

Some 24 hours later, he had 8,579 followers, 9,823 “liked” Tweets and … zero Tweets. Sandgren has not, as of yet, unfollowed any of the 565 accounts he has on his list, including some rather controversial choices that have used up a lot of bandwidth in the online tennis community.

On Tuesday, he did an interview on ESPN and said this:

“It certainly is interesting. I think taking a hard look at some things in the past that I’ve either said or portrayed. Some things that are being said about me that are untrue and not particularly fair. But people have the right to voice their opinions and say what they think,” he said. “They can make judgments about me. I think the way I’ve been conducting myself on the court, the way I treat people and everyone around me, I’m comfortable with that.”

Sandgren said he deleted all his Tweets knowing that screenshots would endure and not having an issue with that.

“It’s not something that I’m really necessarily embarrassed about. It just seemed like creating a version of a cleaner start is not a bad call.  Just something I thought wouldn’t be a bad way to move forward,” he said.

Making Fedfans happy on Court 17

On Sunday, Sandgren was busy making some fans very, very happy on a practice court at Melbourne Park.

Never has the American had so many people attend one of his practices. For many years during his career, he likely wouldn’t have had that many attending his matches.

But given the number of Roger Federer banners, he didn’t flatter himself into thinking that more than a few were there for him.

The FedFans had been waiting awhile, and were expecting to wait even longer before their hero showed up for a hit.

In the meantime, they made do with Sandgren. He went over, signed a ton of merchandise, took selfies, and bantered with the fans as Madrigal and McDonald threw all the practice tennis balls they had into the crowd.

The effort no doubt earned Sandgren some “in real life” fans at the Australian Open, even as the virtual world continued to draw its conclusions about what type of human being he is and what he believes in, from his Tweets, the accounts he follows and his reTweets.

Sandgren and Chung will take the court second on Wednesday, not before 1 p.m. (9 p.m. Tuesday night EST, 8 p.m. in Tennessee).

The winner will be in the Australian Open semifinals, to play either defending champion Roger Federer or No. 19 seed Tomas Berdych.

USTA wild cards fall in first round

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ROLAND GARROS – As different as 15-year-old Amanda Anisimova and 25-year-old Tennys Sandgren are, as far apart as they are on their tennis journeys, they had much in common Sunday in Paris.

Both made their French Open debuts after earning the USTA’s reciprocal wild cards with their play on the Har-Tru during the spring season.

And both hit the wall about an hour and 15 minutes into their first-round matches.

It was an opportunity lost for Anisimova, who a year ago reached the French Open girls’ final in her first tournament at the junior Slam level.

On an extremely hot day, the teenager struggled with a few rookie nerves. But not many. If she suddenly realized she was in the big leagues, it didn’t show much.

Anisimova fought hard but ultimately went down 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 to 25-year-old Kurumi Nara of Japan.

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A decade apart in age, Anisimova and Nara were dead even on the court in the first round of the French Open. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Tough ask for Sandgren

For Sandgren, the task was significantly tougher. 

The 25-year-old’s ranking of No. 113 was almost enough to get him into the French Open on his own merits. Opponent Mikhail Kukushkin wasn’t ranked that much higher – No. 85. But the gap was significant. The 29-year-old from Kazakhstan has been in the top 50. He is playing in his 10th French Open overall, and first appeared in the main draw back in 2011.

On any given day, Kukushkin can play lights-out tennis. 

Sandgren threw everything he had at him. He hit series of slices. He went for drop shots. Everything kept coming back. The American tried to crank a few forehands as hard as he could. They came back. After the first two sets, Sandgren looked as done in as if he’d played five hours. But he stayed competitive until the very end of a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 defeat.

Here’s how it looked. Sandgren made his debut on a nice court – No. 17. But he was playing at the steamiest time on an unusually hot day in Paris. 

A winnable match, an impressive debut

Anisimova was facing an opponent who had no weapons to hurt her, but who wasn’t going to beat herself. That’s a cliché, but it’s also true.

Against a lot of juniors, Nara’s skill set would mean a fairly routine win. She would just keep bringing it back, and keeping it deep, until the inexperienced kid beat herself.

But Anisimova is precocious in the sense that she already seems instinctively to know how much to play. She doesn’t hit every ball as hard as she can. She has big targets when she’s on the run. And when she has an open court, the teenager rarely misses because she gives the ball no more than is required.

Even on the red clay, Anisimova had enough power to hit Nara off the court at times. 

Heat a major factor

But just like Sandgren, Anisimova hit a bit of a wall an hour and 15 minutes in. She played a little later in the afternoon, but it was just as hot. The teenager had break points to go up 5-3 in the second set, at which point she would have served for a straight-sets win.

She didn’t make it then. And when it went to a decider, the way she was looking, you had to think the third set was going to go quickly.

But the kid fights. She was down two breaks in the third set at 1-4. Suddenly, she erased both breaks to even it up at 4-4. As the match hit 2 1/2 hours, that comeback effort seemed to sap whatever energy she had left.

Here’s what it looked like.

The looks over at her parents were tough to watch, at times. On some of the changeovers her eyes were mere slits, and her face was awfully red. 

There were moments when she was grabbing her stomach and back. It’s possible that all the liquids Anisimova was trying to drink were causing a few cramps. But it’s clear that the 15-year-old, who has worked quite a bit the last few years with former Genie Bouchard coach Nick Saviano – has a lot of heart and a lot of game.

Despite her lack of experience, and her young age, there was never a moment when he looked out of place.

At 15, precocious talent

To compare her with Nara at that age is to see how far ahead of the curve Anisimova is.

At 15, Nara’s big moment came at the 2007 US Open juniors, when she and partner Misaki Doi upset the (then) powerhouse junior doubles team of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Ksenia Pervak. 

Here’s what they looked like after that win.

Sandgren
When Nara (right, with partner Misaki Doi) was 15, you could never imagine her going toe-to-toe in a Grand Slam with an opponent 10 years older. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

A year later, Nara was No. 5 in the world, and she wrapped up her junior career before she turned 17.

Anisimova a level above

But after nearly a decade on tour, with all that experience, the match really wasn’t in Nara’s hands. Anisimova could come on the court with her and be every bit as good. That’s promising for American tennis, to say the least.

Only at the end on Sunday were there a few tears. There was no junior behaviour. And when it was all over, she just walked up to the net, gave her opponent a nice handshake and a slight smile, and that was that.

In her press conference afterwards, there didn’t seem to be many who had watched much of the match. It was all pretty general and certainly didn’t reflect either her effort level or performance level in her French Open debut. 

Anisimova didn’t say too much.

“Yeah, it was really tough today. I wasn’t my best physically, but I tried fighting all the way. I’m just proud of how I competed out there. I was just like a little sick. And the heat was definitely a factor,” she said. “I think I was playing pretty aggressive in the first set. And then going on to 3-1 and started making more mistakes and getting a little bit out of focus. I think that was what let me down a little bit,” she said. 

Sandgren clinches RG wild card

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Tennys Sandgren helped his French Open wild-card cause tremendously on quarter-finals Friday at the Savannah Challenger. Tommy Paul did the rest.

The No. 5 seed upset No. 2 Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4) reach the semi-finals. The win knocked Paul and Marcos Giron out of the race.

Then Stefan Kozlov lost, and it was down to one.

Dennis Novikov’s only shot at denying Sandgren and earning the wild card himself was to win the tournament. But Paul defeated him 6-2, 6-4. 

So at the age of 25, Sandgren will make his Grand Slam debut.