It’s still frustrating for Tennys Sandgren to think back to three years ago, when his promising career was temporarily derailed by one awkward slide on a hard court, and seven years ago to a fluky weightlifting accident in high school.
He was 18 in Gallatin, Tenn., when his left leg slipped during a bench press. The overextension left him with impingements in his hip that he still deals with as a 25-year-old. Then, when he was 22, his left leg overextended during a tennis match. This time he was left with nagging hip pain and an inevitable surgery.
Sandgren was flirting with a spot in the top 150 back then and was maybe even a few months away from breaking into the top 100. The injury thwarted his chances then.
Now, he finds himself back in that position. His 6-4, 6-1 win against France’s Vincent Millot on Saturday clinched a spot in Sunday’s Sarasota Open championship against fellow American Frances Tiafoe. Win or lose, Sandgren is headed for a new career best in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) singles rankings.
“I’ve been healthy now for about a year and a bit. I’m playing good tennis,” Sandgren said. “My ranking is going up, and I’m having fun out here.”
Almost exactly three years after he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, Sandgren is playing the best tennis of his career. His ATP ranking of No. 156 is already the best of his career, and the three ATP Challenger Tour finals he has reached since November are triple what he did during the first four years of his professional career.
156Tennys Sandgren’s singles ranking, according to the Association of Tennis Professionals. It’s the highest he’s been ranked in his career.
The first Challenger Tour final came a month after he tore the labrum back in 2013. He finished the 2013 schedule in November with the JSM Challenger of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois, knocking off one top-100 player in the round of 16 and toppling Australia’s Sam Groth in the championship for his first Challenger Tour title.
Less than four months later, Sandgren woke up from surgery. The rehab process began.
“It was really frustrating,” Sandgren said. “I was playing well. I was playing my best tennis.”
The rehab process technically ended in August, when Sandgren returned to the court for a first-round qualifying loss to Canada’s Peter Polansky at the U.S. Open in New York. Really, rehabilitation lasted almost exactly three years.
It was really frustrating. I was playing well. I was playing my best tennis.
Tennys Sandgren, Sarasota Open finalist
Sandgren toiled in ITF Men’s Tour Futures events with the occasional early exit in Challenger tournaments. On Nov. 27, Sandgren stepped on the hard court in Ohio opposite fellow American Stefan Kozlov for the final round of the 2016 Columbus Challenger 2. He went three sets before falling to his fellow American in Columbus.
“Mentally, I’m trying really hard to get the most out of myself point in, point out,” Sandgren said. “I feel like I’m doing a better job of letting myself go.”
Less than three months after the Columbus Challenger, Sandgren was back in another championship round at the Tempe Challenger in Arizona. In three sets, he scored his first Challenger Tour win since before his surgery.
He’ll have a chance to solidify the reality of his return Sunday when he meets Tiafoe, the No. 3 seed who knocked off Austria’s Jurgen Melzer, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), on Saturday. The all-American singles final is scheduled to follow the doubles final between Melzer and American Scott Lipsky. The doubles match gets underway at 1 p.m.
“I came here for a reason. I’m happy to play Sandgren. He’s been playing great tennis the last couple of weeks,” Tiafoe said. “I’m definitely happy for the things he’s doing, but it’s going to be a grind tomorrow.”
Tennys Sandgren United States, def. Vincent Millot, France, 6-4, 6-1.
Frances Tiafoe, United States def. Jurgen Melzer, Austria, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5).
Stefan Kozlov, United States, and Peter Polansky, Canada def. Santiago Gonzalez, Mexico, and Michael Venus, New Zealand, 6-3, 1-6, 10-3.
James T. Driscoll Stadium Court
Scott Lipsky and Jurgen Melzer vs. Stefan Kozlov and Peter Polansky
Tennys Sandgren vs. Frances Tiafoe
Elizabeth Moore Sarasota Open
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. (doubles final followed by singles final)
Where: United Tennis Club, 4511 Bay Club Drive.
Tickets: Available at the gate.
Cost: $20 and up.
Parking: $10 per day.