Although it has been nearly a week since the Australian Open finals were played, the tournament is still all that the Cracked Racquets team can talk about. One of the newest team members, Matt Stachowiak, wrote about the break through some of tennis’ young stars had this year.
When the 2018 Australian Open draw was released a couple weeks ago, I would have placed a hefty bet that nobody had projected Kyle Edmund, Hyeon Chung, or Tennys Sandgren would be in the quarterfinals of the year’s first major. I could have almost guaranteed that no one penciled Edmund or Chung into the semifinals. Well, they sure proved all of us wrong! Melbourne, Australia was the site of three major breakthroughs for these players on the ATP World Tour. Edmund of Great Britain, Chung of Korea, and Sandgren of the United States all achieved career high rankings based on their efforts at the Australian Open. Some may say that these players came out of nowhere, but I’ll tell you exactly why their breakthroughs down under were no fluke.
I had the chance to watch Kyle “Nice Guy Eddy” Edmund live and in person at the Winston-Salem Open last August. What impressed me most about Edmund was his even-keel demeanor on the court and his ability to blast groundstrokes at will from his forehand or backhand side. Not necessarily the most fluid mover on the court, I could tell this young player put in the “hard yards” on the practice court and in the gym in order to maximize his ability as an ATP Tour professional player. Edmund made a run to the semifinals in Winston-Salem, before bowing out to Damir Dzumhur 1-6 7-5 6-3.
In Melbourne this year, Edmund was tested right out of the gate with a match against the number 11 seed, Kevin Anderson. The big serving South African is always a tough out, but Edmund battled back from 2 sets to 1 down to defeat Anderson 6-7(4) 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-4. This was the start of his run to the semis. After taking down Denis Istomin in straight sets, “Nice Guy Eddy” found himself in another 5 set war, this time against Nikoloz Basilashvili. After finding himself down 2 sets to 1 for the second time in three matches, Edmund suddenly looked weary on the court. With temperatures on the outside courts hovering just above 100 degrees, Edmund was staring at the daunting task of winning two sets in a row in order to move on in the tournament.
He did just that by taking the final two sets in a 7-6(0) 3-6 4-6 6-0 7-5 decision over Basilashvili. A win like that would be optimal for a celebration, but Edmund could hardly do so. It was apparent the heat had drained him on that day. A four set victory over Andreas Seppi in the fourth round would put Edmund into his first grand slam quarterfinal. His opponent was none other than Grigor Dimitrov, the tournament’s number 3 seed.
Dimitrov had been playing excellent tennis at the time, and had just scored a victory over Edmund in a tune-up event in Brisbane, Australia a couple weeks earlier. This match would be different, however, with Kyle Edmund prevailing 6-4 3-6 6-3 6-4. Dimitrov was the more talented player, but Edmund was more solid in the big moments to secure his spot in the semifinals. The first-time grand slam quarterfinalist had just become a first-time grand slam semifinalist!
Edmund’s run would end in the semis after meeting a buzz saw in Marin Cilic. The powerful game of Cilic proved too much to handle for Edmund after the amazing tournament he already had. “Nice Guy Eddy” came into the tournament ranked #49 in the world. He left Melbourne with a career high ranking of #26, but he wasn’t the only one to leave the tournament with such an achievement.
At the same event I watched Edmund play last August, I also had the pleasure of seeing Hyeon “The Professor” Chung put his game on display. It was impossible not to immediately notice Chung’s stature. At about 6’3″ inches tall and around 200 pounds, Chung looked more like he could be a football player rather than a tennis player! It’s a good thing he chose tennis in the end. Eerily similar to Edmund, Chung had the even-keeled demeanor that many players covet. His defensive skills and the way he covered the court were also very intriguing. Like Edmund, this was another player who clearly put in the work off the court.
In Winston-Salem, Chung ended up losing in the quarterfinals to Damir Dzumhur. A few months later, “The Professor” earned his spot to compete in the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Italy. This tournament was comprised of the best singles players on the ATP World Tour age 21 and under. Chung powered through the event, taking out promising young players such as Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Medvedev, and Andrey Rublev. This event was a warning shot to everyone on the ATP Tour that Hyeon Chung was starting to come into his own and would be a force from then on.
Chung’s Australian Open would begin against the last seeded player in the draw, Mischa Zverev. After Zverev was forced to retire in the second set, Chung would move on to face Daniil Medvedev again in the second round. After dismissing Medvedev in straight sets, Chung’s first real test would come against the fourth seeded Alexander “Sascha” Zverev in the third round. Many experts considered Zverev to be one of the favorites to win the Australian Open this year. After winning two Masters 1000 events last year, Sascha cemented himself as a true top 5 player in the world.
“The Professor” would pay the experts no mind. After finding himself down 2 sets to 1 against Zverev, Chung proceeded to roll through the final two sets and pummel Sascha into submission. The final score line was 5-7 7-6(3) 2-6 6-3 6-0 for Chung.
Nothing came easy for Hyeon Chung in this tournament as he then had to face the number 14 seed and 6-time Australian Open Champion, Novak Djokovic. By Chung’s own admission, Djokovic was his idol. “The Professor” had built his game to mirror that of Novak’s. Outstanding athleticism and defensive retrieving skills were going head-to-head for the very first time. Chung was never once intimidated by the moment. He was in Rod Laver Arena playing against the 6-time champion, but it appeared as though Chung had prepared for that moment his entire life. He routed Djokovic in straight sets, 7-6(4) 7-5 7-6(3).
In the quarterfinals, in a match that not one person would have predicted, Hyeon Chung set out to take on Tennys Sandgren of the United States. Both men were first time grand slam quarterfinalists. They had worked extremely hard to get to that point in the event. Chung was up to the task once again, taking the victory 6-4 7-6(5) 6-3. Chung was playing for much more than himself at this point. He had the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. Korea had not seen a player in that stage of a grand slam in quite some time.
In his semifinal match against Roger Federer, Chung was forced to retire in the second set due to injuries on his feet. There are pictures of the injuries floating around on the internet but beware, they are not pretty! It was apparent how much effort Chung put in to make it all the way to the semis. Coming into Melbourne, “The Professor” had an ATP ranking of #58. By the time he left, he was up to a career high #29 in the world.
Chung would be the first to admit that much of his success at the Australian Open was owed to his new coach, Neville Godwin. Godwin is widely known for being one of the very best coaches on the ATP Tour. After coaching his former pupil, Kevin Anderson, to a career best result in reaching the final of the U.S. Open last September, Godwin and Anderson decided to end their lengthy relationship. Without ever having any real contact with Chung himself, Godwin decided to take on the role of mentoring him for 2018, after negotiating a contract with the agent who happens to represent both Chung and Anderson.
Godwin clearly was able to get Chung to believe in himself and his abilities more at this time than ever in the past. “The Professor” appears to be playing with the mindset that he can compete with the top ranked players in the world, week-in week-out. The talent was never in question, but truly believing that the sky is the limit can be the most difficult part for a young player to take the next step in development. Godwin has surely set the stage for Chung to attack the Tour this year and reach heights that maybe he could have only dreamt of.
Last but certainly not least, a player by the name of Tennys, pronounced exactly like the sport, tennis, made his mark down under. Tennys Sandgren is what some would consider being a “journeyman”. Sandgren played collegiate tennis for the University of Tennessee, and spent a lot of time on the Futures and Challenger circuits before making an impact on the ATP World Tour.
I had the opportunity to watch Sandgren play college tennis back in 2010. As weird as it may sound, Sandgren actually played number 3 singles for Tennessee. Who on earth could have been playing ahead of him? Well, J.P. Smith played number 1 and Rhyne Williams played number 2. Smith still plays professional tennis and has a current rank of #219 in the world. Williams was a highly touted blue-chip recruit out of Knoxville, Tennessee who ranked as high as number 1 in the United States as a junior player.
Even though Sandgren was playing in the middle of the lineup at Tennessee, I noticed some traits that showed his future potential as a professional player. Sandgren had an all-around solid game as a collegiate player. He could grind from the baseline, transition into the net, hit powerful serves, and had a great mental game. With a little bit of refinement and hard work, it was obvious that Sandgren had the ability to take his talents to the next level.
After making the decision to turn pro, nothing came easy for Sandgren. He was forced to travel from city to city every week on the Futures circuit. There is very little prize money involved at this level of professional tennis, so it was very likely that Sandgren was spending more money on his expenses than he was actually earning from playing. With this being the case, many players would have opted to hang up the tennis shoes and move on with their lives away from the sport. Not Tennys Sandgren!
To make matters worse, Sandgren was forced to come back from a labrum tear in his hip in 2014. The injury required surgery, leaving the former Volunteer unable to walk for a month. A setback like this is no joke, especially in the sport of tennis where movement is at a premium. It just so happened that instead of derailing his career, like it could for many players, Tennys Sandgren found the inner fortitude to come back stronger after the injury.
Winning several of those Futures events allowed Sandgren to move up to the Challenger Tour level of professional tennis, which is right below the ATP World Tour. It took him years of playing on the Challenger Tour to finally get his ranking high enough for a main draw entry into a grand slam tournament. The 26 year old seized the opportunity when he got his chance. Quite possibly the most unlikely American to make a deep run in Melbourne, Tennys Sandgren would have the best tournament of his life and announce to the world that he was here to stay.
A first round victory over Jeremy Chardy was just the beginning. Sandgren then had to face former Australian Open champion and 9th seeded Stan “The Man” Wawrinka in the second round. Yes, Wawrinka was coming off injury but Sandgren had never been in this position before. Sandgren would take Stan to the woodshed, 6-2 6-1 6-4. After a grueling 4 set victory against Maximilian Marterer in the blazing Australia heat, Sandgren was awarded his first grand slam fourth round with a matchup against world #5 Dominic Thiem. Thiem is widely known as one of the very best competitors on the ATP Tour. In a back-and-forth match that lasted nearly 4 hours on court, Sandgren would prevail over Thiem by a score of 6-2 4-6 7-6(4) 6-7(7) 6-3.
Photo by: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
He was the last American man standing. Who could have predicted that? His dream run ended with the loss to Chung in the quarterfinals. Clearly, all the work Sandgren had put in on the court, off the court, and in the gym, finally paid off for him in spades. Entering Melbourne, Sandgren came into the event ranked #97 in the world. He is now up to a career high #55 on the ATP World Tour after his efforts down under.
All three of these players left the 2018 Australian Open with a completely different perspective than when they arrived. It was a life changing tournament for all of them. The most captivating storyline of grand slam tennis is always watching to see which players will break through and shock the world. This time around, it was Kyle Edmund, Hyeon Chung, and Tennys Sandgren! Will we ever see these three hoist double digit grand slam trophies in the future? Maybe not. Only a handful of players in the history of the sport have achieved that milestone. What I do know is that Edmund, Chung, and Sandgren will all be a major part of life on the ATP World Tour for a long time to come. They certainly earned it.
Who do you think had the biggest breakthrough? And who will end the year ranked the highest? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.