WASHINGTON, January 23, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
When the 2018 Australian Open men’s singles draw was released, it figured that if the seeding held true in the third quarter, No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev and No. 5 Dominic Thiem would face each other in a second-week quarterfinal. Instead, as it happened, it will be No. 58-ranked Hyeon Chung versus No. 97-ranked Tennys Sandgren. For both Chung and Sandgren, each is enjoying the best week of their respective tennis lives.
On Monday, both Chung and Sandgren let their tennis do their talking – and it resulted in two of the biggest surprises of this year’s Australian Open fortnight.
Sandgren Upsets Thiem
First, Sandgren, the unlikeliest last American in the men’s draw, beat Thiem, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (7), 6-3. Remarkably, he had only won two matches on the ATP World Tour before arriving in Melbourne, last summer at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. After playing two years of college tennis at the University of Tenneesse, Sandgren has spend much of his professional career bouncing around the ATP’s Challenger Tour and ITF Pro Circuits. In five previous attempts at earning a berth for the AO main draw, he never advanced to the final round of qualifying. This year, his ranking was good enough to gain direct entry.
In addressing the crowd on Hisense Arena after winning his almost four-hour five-set thriller against Thiem, the 26-year-old Sandgren said “I don’t know if this is a dream or not. All you guys are here, and I’m not in my underwear, so maybe it’s not a dream.”
Chung Knocks Out Six-Time Australian Open Champion
Certainly, Monday night wasn’t a dream for Chung, as the 21-year-old South Korean – he of the trademark white prescription glasses – knocked out the six-time Australian Open champion and 14th seed Novak Djokovic, who was playing in just his first tournament since last summer’s Wimbledon, returning from a six-month absence while recovering from an undisclosed injury to his right elbow, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-6 (3). Chung relied on a solid groundstroke attack that produced 39 winners against the Serbian, who lost his first straight-set match at the AO in 11 years. It was their second career head-to-head meeting and came two years after Djokovic won the first one, also in Melbourne, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
“When I was young, I just tried to copy Novak because he was my idol,” said Chung, during his post-match press conference, in describing Djokovic as his boyhood idol while growing up in South Korea. In coming from a country that’s not exactly known for producing championship-calibre tennis players, Chung is just the second South Korean to break into the ATP Top 100 following in the footsteps of Hyung-Taik Lee, who peaked at No. 36 in 2007.
The last few days have been pretty remarkable for Chung, who one round earlier scored what had been the biggest win of his young career, beating the World No. 4 Zverev, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0. By beating both Zverev and Djokovic, he’s now the first South Korean, male or female, to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Contrast In Personalities
When Chung and Sandgren meet on Wednesday for a berth in the semifinals, there will be a contrast in personalities and styles. Chung relies on a strong work ethic and mental toughness on the court – he saved 14 of 19 break points against Djokovic while converting six of 10 break-point opportunities – while Sandgren, a political conservative, is outgoing and not afraid to express his opinions, both about tennis and politics, on social media off the court. “I like to consume information. I like to learn,” he told The New York Times in a later interview after his match Monday.
Chung is a quick study and learner, too. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated executive editor and tennis writer extraordinaire, called Chung “a flexible, durable player who toggles easily between offense and defense” and is “so even-tempered and bloodlessly cool, even in the biggest moments.” In describing Chung’s big win over Djokovic Monday night on Rod Laver Arena, Christopher Clarey, the New York Times tennis columnist, wrote that the South Korean “rebooted points from extreme body positions and transformed defense into offense in way s that were eerily similar to Djokovic at his best.”
As for the Tennesseean Sandgren, it should be noted that a year ago, he lost in the first round of AO qualifying to Kimmer Coppejans. A year later, he beat both No. 9 seed Stan Wawrinka and Thiem to reach the quarterfinals. Not since Alexandr Dolgopolov, who reached the AO quarterfinals in 2011, has a men’s player advanced this far in his first Australian Open. Meanwhile, the last man to advance this far in any major without winning a previous Grand Slam singles match was Martin Verkerk, who reached the 2003 French Open final.
Leading up to this season’s first Grand Slam, Chung beat Sandgren earlier this month in the first round at Auckland, New Zealand, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. Following his win over Thiem, Sandgren was asked during his post-match press conference about Chung. “I know he’s playing well and I was really grateful for that match we played in Auckland, because it really pushed me to kind of see what I needed to do to compete with a player like that,” he said. “And that’s really helped me going into this week and having some of the results I’ve had so far.”
Can Chung-Sandgren become a rivalry of sorts? Maybe. Win or lose, Sandgren has nothing but praise for Chung. “I think he’s going to win some Slams in his career, and I think he’ll be around for many years.”
Note: According to the ATP, No. 58 Hyeon Chung versus No. 97 Tennys Sandgren is the first Grand Slam quarterfinal, semifinal or final between two players outside the Top 50 since No. 94 Rainer Schuttler beat No. 145 Arnaud Clement in the 2008 Wimbledon quarterfinals, and the first time at the Australian Open since No. 114 Patrick McEnroe beat No. 101 Cristiano Caratti in a 1991 quarterfinal.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.