Tennys Sandgren continues to defy the odds and keep his debut Australian Open dream run alive, after taking a gladiatorial 6-2 4-6 7-6(4) 6-7(7) 6-3 fourth-round victory over No.5 seed Dominic Thiem on Monday night.
So much has been made of a host of American hopes falling early this January, but the 26-year-old became only the second man in 20 years to the reach the quarterfinals in his maiden Melbourne Park main draw.
“I don’t know, I’m in disbelief, I don’t know if this is a dream or not,” said a stunned Sandgren. “It’s pretty cool. He played some really, really great tennis.
“I knew I had to take my chances. I knew from the back he could out-strike me, so I knew I had to be aggressive. Thankfully it worked out in the end.
“These guys don’t know what to expect, I’m using that to my advantage,” added the American, who fell in the first round in both of his previous Grand Slam appearances. “They don’t know how I’m going to play points, so I’m using that to try and keep riding this wave.”
A packed Hisense Arena witnessed Sandgren’s first-ever five-set match, and it was a thriller.
The American thrived as the unknown entity to topple a hobbled 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka in round two, and replicated playing first-strike tennis to chalk up an instant 2-0 lead.
Thiem prevailed in an absorbing 32-shot rally and arrowed a forehand down the line at 2-4 to earn break point. However, Sandgren stood firm in a gripping 11-minute hold, fending off four break points to frustrate the Austrian youngster.
Sandgren defied his ranking to saunter to the opener, but Thiem hauled himself back into the contest with 12 successful forays to the net from 16 attempts in set two.
A sumptuous curled lob glanced the baseline, providing Thiem his first break for the match for 2-1 lead.
The world No.5 maintained that margin, and while serving for the set, chased down a dropshot and sneaked a forehand pass inches wide of the Sandgren wingspan to level the contest.
A miscued dropshot gifted Sandgren an early 3-1 advantage in set three, but the 24-year-old reached a short ball to whip a forehand pass, raising a clenched fist to salute the boisterous crowd having got back on track.
A tiebreak was required, and it was Sandgren who commanded proceedings to inch closer to a second seismic shock.
Another tiebreak had to split a tense fourth set, and this one was a pure purple patch of world-class tennis.
On the three-hour mark, Thiem leapt into the air to clatter a forehand down the line. Back chopped the American, with an astute acute volley as the duo headed to four apiece.
Sliding towards the net, Thiem managed to wrong-foot the world No.97 with a vicious volley. But an error off each wing was particularly untimely, suddenly offering up match point to Sandgren.
A pulsating rally ensued and Thiem delivered his best with a rocket backhand, twisting in mid-air to strike on the rise. Sandgren simply applauded; it was sublime.
Moments later another monster backhand, Thiem’s 19th winner of the set, was the pivotal strike as the Austrian wrestled the enthralling encounter into a decider.
However, it was Sandgren, who fell in Australian Open qualifying from 2013-2017, attacked on return to clinch a 4-2 lead.
The pressure and the gravitas of the occasion were oblivious. Sandgren stormed through his remaining service games, lifting his arms aloft in disbelief.
“I didn’t think I’d see you guys again,” quipped Sandgren as he walked into his press conference. “I think patience was a big deal out there.
“I got a handful of looks on his serve. I had to just keep level-headed, keep holding onto my service games, doing the right things, and hopefully I could get a few looks.
“I was telling myself to stay calm, don't burn too much energy on stuff you don't need to, just focus on what you have to do.”
The 26-year-old had a real “pinch-me” moment conducting his on court interview.
“Obviously the first three matches were more than I expected. This one was about as hard-fought as I've ever had a match before. So that’s pretty neat.”
The world No.97’s reward is a quarterfinal clash with Next Gen prodigy Hyeon Chung, the conqueror of six-time champion Novak Djokovic.
“I played Chung two weeks ago,” added Sandgren, who fell to the South Korean in three sets in Auckland.
“He’s playing some amazing tennis, and that match kind of helped me raise my level. So that would be fitting to play him in the quarterfinals.”