Tennys Sandgren and the feel-good stories of the Australian Open

Tennis


MELBOURNE, Australia — Two years ago, Tennys Sandgren, a 26-year-old from Tennessee, was chugging beers at a bar, watching Stan Wawrinka win the US Open. The idea of being on the same court with one of the game’s elite, never mind on a Grand Slam stage, seemed improbable.

How things have changed.

On Thursday, he beat the ninth-seeded Wawrinka in one of the most notable upsets of this year’s Australian Open. With three wins, Sandgren shockingly finds himself in the second week of the year’s first major, despite having never won a Grand Slam match before arriving in Melbourne.

One of the least-known American tennis players coming into this event is now the last American man standing. Who would have thought?

“It’s kind of silly, right?” a disbelieving Sandgren said after making the second week here with a third-round win Saturday over Maximilian Marterer. “I didn’t think I’d make the second week when I came here. I was hoping to play a few good matches or try to get my first win, things like that. But to realistically set my sights on a second week wasn’t on the cards.”

Sandgren is one of the many feel-good stories as we get down to the home stretch of the year’s first Slam. Make that a much-needed feel-good story.

Think about it. These were the headlines leading up to this year’s Australian Open: Serena Williams‘s withdrawal, Andy Murray‘s surgery, Novak Djokovic‘s injured elbow and Rafael Nadal‘s banged-up knees. And that was before the news broke of a reported player revolt and prize-money dissatisfaction just as we were supposed to be paying attention to the early-round action Down Under.

A lot of doom and gloom, but that was then.

Along with Sandgren, here’s a snippet of where we are at the start of the tournament’s second week: The usual suspects of Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer are emerging as favorites to win the title — again. And a women’s field that appeared to be shattered following a series of early upsets has proved to be far from broken.

It’s been a fun ride.

Oddsmakers have pegged Angelique Kerber as the favorite, a prediction largely based on the fact that she’s the only remaining player in the women’s field with a Grand Slam title. Kerber, the No. 21 seed here, is playing in the top half of the women’s draw that also features Simona Halep and potential quarterfinal opponent Madison Keys.

After a lopsided win against Maria Sharapova on Saturday, it seems likely Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open winner, will breeze through her Monday quarterfinal match against Hsieh Su-wei, setting up a showdown with Keys. But of course, the American has to get past No. 8 seed Caroline Garcia on Monday.

Keys has looked sharp. Against three unseeded opponents, she has failed to drop a set.

She possesses an intangible that most of the other women in the field don’t: the experience of playing in last year’s US Open final, where she lost to Sloane Stephens.

Somehow, though, Keys has flown under the radar here in Melbourne despite last year’s success. And she’s enjoyed it.

“I’m always happy I’m not in the drama,” Keys said. “I feel like at the US Open I was in the drama every night match I played.”

Keys won’t be able to avoid the drama much longer, though. She’s in an upper half of a women’s draw that features top-seeded Halep, who faces her own treacherous minefield over the next two potential matches in her attempt to win a first major title.

Her next challenge will come against Naomi Osaka, a Japanese-born, American-raised half-Haitian who wouldn’t normally be mentioned in the same equation as the No. 1 player in the world.

Halep has the ranking but lacks the swagger and intimidation factor that comes with winning majors.

Osaka, who beat Kerber in last year’s US Open and Venus Williams a month later in Hong Kong, hasn’t dropped a set yet. Osaka is just as dangerous on the court as she is adorable off it, as evidenced by the way she won over the Margaret Court Arena crowd just moments after using her agility and power to take out hometown favorite Ashleigh Barty on Saturday.

Osaka is athletic enough to beat Halep, who survived a severe ankle sprain during her first-round win over Destanee Aiava and a 3-hour, 45-minute marathon match Saturday against Lauren Davis.

Even if Halep wins the next match against Osaka, she’d face another possible tough test in the quarterfinals against either No. 6 Karolina Pliskova or No. 20 Barbora Strycova.

On the bottom half, it’s Caroline Wozniacki and a long line of women who are making the deepest Grand Slam runs of their careers.

Wozniacki has been battle-tested in this tournament. In the second round, she fought back from being down three match points against Jana Fett. That near disaster just might have been the wake-up call that helps Wozniacki reach her first Grand Slam final since the 2014 US Open.

“I think being almost out of the tournament, you have nothing to lose after that,” Wozniacki said. “You just go out there and you enjoy yourself. I played really well from being down 5-1. Since then I’ve just kept that going.”

Wozniacki could win this thing. So could Kerber or Keys or, well, just about anyone. Same can obviously be said for Federer and his top rivals.

And who knows, maybe even Sandgren.

Worst case, there will be a lot of good bars open come Sunday.



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