Sunday, November 8, 2015

Tennys: Back 'On the Rise'

On Friday, it was my pleasure to interview Tennys Sandgren who, with Chase Buchanan, had just reached the final of the 2015 Charlottesville Men's Pro Challenger, beating Joe Salisbury and David O'Hare, former University of Memphis players 6-1 6-3. After breaking into the Top 200 in 2013, Sandgren suffered a hip injury that required surgery and kept him out for much of 2014. 2015 has been an uneven year -- some great results in Futures (including two titles) and in doubles, but a frustrating year at the Challenger level. I talked to the former Tennessee Volunteer about a wide range of topics. Please forgive some of the bone-head questions -- his answers are well worth the read!

Tennys Sandgren. © Jonathan Kelley
OTR: I believe this is going to be your first doubles challenger trophy with someone other than Austin (Krajicek) or Rhyne (Williams).

TS: Yes … potentially yes. Hopefully.

OTR: You'd get a runner-up trophy, right?

TS: No, I don't think so. There's hardly trophies for even winning sometimes. Sometimes you win tournaments, you don't get anything. Except the points and the check … the important stuff. [Laughs]

OTR: Well you can always have one made if you wanted to. [Salisbury and O'Hare] were a solid college team. What made the difference in your win today?

TS: I think we both served well, which helped a lot. Doubles is all about the first one or two shots in the rally. So we both served and returned very well. Chase returned the best he's returned all tournament today. Quite a few winners off his racquet. And then we took care of business on the next ball, either at the net, looking to pick off the first ball, or hit a good aggressive first ball off the serve. I think that was the difference -- we were just really strong on those first couple of shots.

OTR: I asked Chase this yesterday: What makes you, yourself, such a strong doubles player? You seem to be able to get to finals in all sorts of tournaments. Did college help a lot, and what are the features of your game that help so much?

TS: I think college does help because you do spend time practicing just doubles and getting coached in doubles, which helps. A lot of guys -- for instance if you look at like Tommy Paul: fantastic singles player, but he hasn't necessarily been coached in doubles, which, that helps.

For me personally, I serve pretty well. I make big cuts -- I make bigger cuts in doubles than I do in singles just in general.

OTR: Because you're more relaxed?

TS: Yeah, being relaxed helps. Having a target helps. Having somebody at the net so you know you have to beat the guy at the net, like, you can't get away with just hitting a solid ball. And you get rewarded for hitting a big shot, as well, quicker. Singles, you sometimes have to hit a bunch of really good balls just to win a point, but doubles, just one or two big ones tends to win the point.

Kind of having that quick reward helps me mentally to execute the shots properly.

OTR: You had a really great year in Futures again.

TS: Yeah, that was a good effort to win a bunch of Futures matches, get my ranking up there, where I'm at least getting into challengers again, which is great. I was at, like, 650 in February. I hadn't been that low since I was still in school -- I was still in school, and I had won a couple of Futures over the summer, and I was in, like, the 500s and decided to turn pro.

So that was kind of interesting to be that deep and not having won very many matches, lost bunch of close ones since coming back [from injury] and was able to just put some wins together, win a couple of Futures titles. You know, it was a lot of matches, I think my body's kind of feeling it a little bit here at the home stretch.

OTR: Have you started thinking about next year in terms of goals and schedule and stuff?

TS: My first goal, really, for this off-season is to get healthy. I tweaked a couple things in my body here recently and that's just kind of nagging me. For me to play my best tennis I need to be 100% healthy and moving really well.

And then second, go out there and try to play my very best tennis. Because sometimes I get stuck trying to play my B-game a little too much, and play a little too defensive, and that's not going to take me where I want to go.

Hard, on-paper goals? Not particularly. I know I can make big jumps if I play the game the way I'm supposed to.

OTR: Who are you working with?

TS: I'm working with Brad Stine [USTA Player Development collegiate division coach] quite a bit. I'm working with a coach in Texas some too, Theron Cole. USTA is helping me some with Brad and Captain [Tom] Gullickson is helping me some. So a couple of people. Kind of a team effort right now, I don't have any one particular guy, I think Brad would probably be the guy helping me the most right now.

OTR: When you look at these kids coming up right now, going immediately to the pros at 17, 18 and having some success here, does that push you to try to keep up with them?

TS: It makes you feel old. [Laughs.] No, it's really great to see these guys playing such good ball. If, when I was their age, if I'd had more success just in Futures I probably would not have gone to school but I wasn't having any so going to school was the best route for me.

To see them winning futures and winning challengers … Taylor winning back-to-back challengers. Tommy's close. Stefan the quarters this week. It's great to see.

Yeah sure, it's kind of a kick in the butt a little bit. "What are you doing, are you going to pick it up here?" For sure. But they're playing great tennis. It doesn't matter how old you are, if you're playing ball like that you're going to get wins.

And it's actually refreshing to see how they're going about doing it. Tommy's playing very aggressive, Taylor's playing very aggressive. That kind of style, seeing how successful they are playing that kind of big man tennis at a young age is impressive. Anybody's going to get better taking notes from that, how you can play more aggressive, because that's how the guys on TV are playing, they're playing pretty aggressive baseline tennis.

OTR: Have you had much success in the Knoxville tournament?

TS: Yeah. Doubles I don't think great -- I think I'm always ... something always happens in doubles.

Singles I reached quarters one year and semis in 2013 I think. And last year, I think I lost in the quarters here [in Charlottesville] and then had to play qualies [in Knoxville] the next day, then qualied and lost second round, but won my first round against Blaz Rola, which was a good win on the home courts.

Normally I have pretty good success there. I didn't lose there in school. Was undefeated at home, which was cool.

OTR: Wow.

TS: Well, it was only two seasons. Four would have been big. But I love playing there, I have good success there, I usually play good tennis.

OTR: Speaking of Blaz, do you have a rivalry for Chase's time and affection?

TS: I cannot compete with Blaz. I've heard that when they're in the same tournament together they are playing doubles together. Just straight up. I don't know if they signed a contract or nuptials or ... I don't know how that works. I don't think I can compete with that. All I can do is do my best when I do get Chase, on the occasion.

OTR: Austin Krajicek has made a huge jump this year. He'll be in Knoxville, are you guys going to play doubles there?

TS: We are not going to play doubles there. We actually talked about it a little bit. I'm playing with Jarryd Chaplin, former Vol. He was looking for a partner and we actually got a wild card.

He's been battling, trying to get points and trying to make his way, especially on the doubles court. It just kind of worked out that we would play together there on our home courts, and see if we can make a run, which I'm excited about. Jarryd's an awesome guy, great player, great doubles player.

OTR: Do you feel any sort of [in-state] rivalry against the Memphis guys?

TS: No. Even though we lost -- when I left school, the very next season we lost to Memphis. One of our first dual matches of the season. We lost our top 5, and then Memphis beat us and it was just like ... [sucks in air] what happened? 

They're good players, I know both of those guys, and they're both hitting the ball huge. Anything can happen when they're striking the ball that well.

OTR: Do you still follow college tennis?

TS: Yeah, I do. I peek my head in there to see what's going on. I don't follow particularly what's going on in the season, per se, other than Tennessee and a couple of schools, but the tournament for sure I follow, and I'll put on a live stream of an NCAA match.

OTR: What do you think of no-ad?

TS: I don't particularly like it…

OTR: Would it have affected your decision to go to college if it had been in place?

TS: No, I don't think it would have. My decision was based upon, was I ready to play pro tennis at the time when college was an option, and I don't think I was. So I thought that was a better avenue, much cheaper avenue, easier to grow. On the road, playing on different courts week-in and week-out -- that's a tough place to develop when you're not winning matches off the bat, which I wasn't.

I don't think that would have affected my decision. But do I think playing ad helps you grow as a player, and can affect matches for sure...

[Just then, Brad Stine passes by and yells, "Brad Stine's unbelievable!"]

TS: No. That's not the case.

But how many singles matches do you see, the first couple of games are crazy long ad games and someone comes up big in those moment, and the match is over, like that. Like, there's just a mental battle there that you would miss not playing ad. So yeah, will it have a direct affect on development? 
I don't know, but it definitely affects how people can go about playing and handling those moments in a real match, for sure.

OTR: You have a brother [Davey] who was a really high-level junior and college player as well. I wasn't really following those levels when he was big. What's up with him?

TS: He was a two-time All-American at Tennessee. He lost in the finals of doubles twice with J.P. Smith and they were close to winning it.

Great junior player, great college player, got his degree in aerospace engineering while he was at school, which ... it's not easy to play tennis or play any sport and get a degree like that. Lot of late nights studying. I know a couple of moments where he was studying at 3, 4 in the morning, then having to play his tournament matches the next day.

He's doing well. He got married two years ago and he's living in Texas, working for an engineering company and doing well. We're actually going to South Africa, a big family trip, when the season's over. I'm excited about that.

OTR: I've noticed this year that a lot of the college guys … you were part of a great, great group of college guys [who turned pro]. Jarmere Jenkins. Bradley Klahn. Chase Buchanan. You. Rhyne Williams. This year seems to have been a down year, or an injury-plagued year, or something like that. Just hasn't been that breakthrough. Got me wondering a couple of things. Is there something about being so used to having that team and then not having that team around you that makes the transition kind of tough? Or is there anything else going on?

TS: I wouldn't say that's the case. Even if you play four years of school, which some of the guys did not, you still play the majority of your tennis without a team. It's way more foreign to play with a team than to play without a team. All of us are very used to being on the road. It's not anything new. 

I think it's a little bit circumstantial. I'm coming back from injury and trying to stay healthy. Chase has been hurt a lot of this year. Bradley has been hurt almost the whole year. He was breaking through -- he was Top 100 when he was injured. It's tough to stay healthy...

I also think it's a testament for just how hard it is to make that big breakthrough. When you're talking about getting to 150-200 in the world, to make that jump you have to win a ton of matches. Look at Austin. He's won a ton of matches and he's made quarters, semis if a couple of ATP tournaments. That's a guy who has broken through this year. Stevie [Johnson], obviously he was Top 100 in the world to start this year but he's made a massive breakthrough to get from the 70s maybe to 30? That's a pretty big jump. So yeah, some guys, including myself have maybe stagnated a little bit.

It takes a toll -- playing that many weeks takes a toll for sure. Your body sometimes can handle it, sometimes it can't.  You have to be on point for so many weeks in the year, not just to stay where you are but to make that big jump. Some years maybe you just don't have it. Maybe it's just not in the tank or your body doesn't want to let you. I was pretty close to making a big jump and then the body said, "Nope, you're not going to do it."

OTR: Do you think that five-set match in Atlanta [in 2013] ...

TS: No, I had hurt [my hip] two weeks before. I actually hurt it originally in school and then I did rehab, it got better, and then I hurt it in pre-season on the court.

OTR: Are you glad they don't have that anymore?

TS: The [Australian Open] wild-card tournament? I am. Because I made finals the last year, had a match point, and I got nothing. I beat two really good players [Krajicek and Denis Kudla] ... I mean, it was a great event. They ran a really good event, they ran it well, it was fun to play. But I invested quite a bit of time, quite a bit of effort into that and I didn't get anything. Which, I knew that signing up. But it still hurts.

Whereas here, if you get second place in the points race, you still get points, you still get money. It's way cleaner and you don't have to disrupt your off-season. It's tough to go two weeks into your off-season -- you're training really hard, and then you have to taper for this tournament in the middle of it, and then ramp it right up again.

It just doesn't make sense to do it like that. You want four clean weeks, work really hard for three, then taper off at the end, play a lot more tennis, and then go wherever you're starting the year. Makes more sense.

OTR: Are you defending finalist in Noumea [Challenger]?

TS: Title. Austin and I won the title there. Austin and I are joking, we have to defend ... we're back-to-back defending, so we're going to go back for the third title.

OTR: Is it really pretty there?

TS: It's pretty. It's really hot. Austin and I got really sick ... I got sick on the flight there, I felt terrible. I got the flu on the plane. Austin and I were rooming together and I got him sick. So we were both sick. He had to pull out of his first round, I could barely play the second set of my first round match because I was just toast.

But we won doubles. I don't know if we'll go back. No idea.

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