By Joel Silverberg
While we were sleeping Sunday night and early Monday morning, one VFL was having to pinch himself repeatedly to make sure he was actually awake.
Fortunately for Tennys Sandgren he wasn’t dreaming. What he did had actually happened.
The former Vol tennis star had upset fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem in a five-set match that lasted nearly four hours to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals. Sandgren, 26, had never been in the main draw of the Aussie Open and had never been past the first round of a major before last week.
He also had never beaten a top-ten player in his career. He’s done it twice in this tournament alone. Last night against Thiem and in the second round against three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka.
Sandgren will face unseeded Hyeon Chung in the quarterfinals. The winner could face Roger Federer in the semis.
So how big of a deal is it for Sandgren, a two-year letter winner at Tennessee, to find himself in the last eight of a grand slam? Considering Sandgren is a former college tennis player, it’s quite remarkable.
College tennis is not a springboard for the ATP Tour as college football is for the NFL. The last 21 NCAA singles champions failed to make the quarterfinals of a major. The last champ to do it? Current Tennessee Coach Chris Woodruff, who won the NCAA title in 1993 and made the last eight of the Australian Open in 2000.
The success of former college players on tour has come in spurts. Kevin Anderson, who played at Illinois, made the finals of the US Open at age 31, but it was the first time he had been past the fourth round of any major. Former Georgia Bulldog John Isner has made it to one grand slam quarterfinal, at the US Open in 2011. USC alum Steve Johnson won six national titles for the Trojans, but has never been to the quarterfinals of any major.
What’s more is all three of these players had major success in college. Sandgren wasn’t even the top-ranked player at Tennessee. He was fourth in the singles lineup as a freshman and third as a sophomore. He turned pro after two seasons in Knoxville.
After leaving school it took Sandgren six years to play in his first major. At the end of 2017 he finished the year ranked in the top 100 for the first time, coming in at 96. He went into this year’s Australian Open ranked 97. His career high ranking is 85. He’s guaranteed to exceed that after making the quarters in Melbourne.
In a sport that sees minimal success for former collegiate players, Sandgren is hoping to continue his breakthrough as the last American man standing, and the first to be in the last eight in Australia since 2010.
For now, he’ll be focusing on Chung. The 58th-ranked Korean who is also playing in his first major quarterfinal. Roger Federer could very well be waiting for the winner. Tennys Sandgren, the former Vol, playing in the semifinals of a grand slam against the greatest player of all time?
Sandgren might just have to pinch himself again.