By Jane Voigt
It’s not that six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic lost or that the fifth seeded Dominic Thiem lost, although that can’t be dismissed. It’s the fact that their victors — Hyeon Chung (58 in world) and Tennys Sandgren (97 in world) — will meet in the quarterfinals, their first at any major tournament. Like what kind of fairytale, or nightmare, depending on your point of view, is this?
“I don’t know if this is a dream or not,” Sandgren said on court.
“Dreams come true tonight,” Chung told Jim Courier after the win.
“I know how he feels as a young player, winning on a big stage,” Djokovic told the press, after his 7-6(4), 7-5, 7-6(3) loss. “Lots of tough rallies. I wanted to challenge him to earn it. And that’s what he did.”
“I don’t think I played bad,” Thiem said, after losing to Sandgren, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-7(7), 6-3 . “Of course there are things I could have done better. It was really tough to hit through him, and he didn’t drop his level for almost four hours.”
But beat the elite they did.
Chung, quite literally, did to Djokovic what Djokovic did to hundreds of opponents over his 15-year career. The 21-year-old ran down every ball, created awesome angles and took full advantage of the confidence and momentum he built point by point, as the same emotions slipped away from Djokovic.
“Congratulations to Chung,” Djokovic said, later. “He was better on court tonight. Impressive. He can be a top-10 player. He’s improved physically. He’s hard-working and really nice guy. Yes, our games are a lot alike.”
“How do you hit those shots?” Courier asked Chung, authentically amazed. “I don’t know. When I was young I just tried to copy Novak because he is my idol.”
The 2017 inaugural ATP #NextGen Final’s winner and 2013 Wimbledon Boys Finalist, Chung relies on strength from his legs.
“I try to move more steps than my competitor does and I try to do my best,” he said in 2015 at Wimbledon. And now three years on, he has a new coach — Neville Godwin — and according to Grand Slam doubles champion Jamie Murray, some new technical improvements to his grip, Chung has made history becoming the first Korean man or woman to make a quarterfinal at any major tournament.
“Today’s victory for my country,” Chung said later, smiling. “I think tennis coming up [in Korea] after this tonight.”
“Unbelievable play and court coverage,” Patrick McEnroe said, calling the match for ESPN, and speaking for the millions who watched world-wide.
Djokovic showed off the tennis that has made him an 12-time Grand Slam champion; and, he looked like a player who had not been on tour for six months, as he rehabilitated his right elbow. He hung in rallies, some going beyond 30 shots, then missed what seemed like routine winners.
“That miss right there shows that he’s just not confident on big points,” McEnroe pointed out, after another unforced error. He ended with 57 for the match.
“It’s [elbow] not great,” Djokovic told the media. “At the end of the first set it started hurting more. I had to deal with it till the end of the match. It’s frustrating not to perfectly heal after taking your time [off]. Now I have to evaluate things with my medical team.”
Chung’s progression through the draw has been stunning. Misha Zverev (No. 32) retired against Chung in round one. Danil Medvedev, who just won Sydney last week, lost 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-1. Then Chung took it to Alexandr Zverev, the anointed super star of the #NextGen and 4-seed, beating him in five sets, 6-0 in the fifth.
“In Grand Slam everyone play so good,” Chung said on court. “I will recover and have good sleep and be ready for Wednesday.”
Tennys — pronounced ‘tennis’ — will have his hands full against Chung. The occasion, if nothing else, could cause its own set of problems. Not only had Sandgren never won a match at a major he had won only 2 matches on the ATP Tour. However, this week he’s defeated two top-ten players: Thiem and Wawrinka.
“The first three matches were more than I expected,” Sandgren told the press. “This one [against Thiem] was about as hard-fought as I’ve ever had a match before. My biggest match, as well, pretty neat. Definitely a pinch-me moment.”
Sandgren does not, though, seem intimidated about the upcoming match.
“It’s not about finding belief,” he began. “I know I’m good enough to do good things in the game. This is a confirmation for me. I know I serve well. If you can hold serve in this game, you can compete with anybody. My movement is good. Playing good defense.”
Sandgren, though, points to his mind as a key asset.
“Most importantly I’m staying calm and not getting too upset, not getting too up, not getting to down, able to keep my emotions under control, which is a big deal because I can be an emotional person,” Sandgren explained. “That doesn’t go well with tennis, especially with a three-out-of-five-set match. You don’t have energy to waste on emotions.”
Sandgren, who comes from Tennessee and studied for two years at the University of Tennessee before turning pro, was home-schooled by his mother. Unlike her son, she has not been able to keep her emotions in check during the tournament.
“I hope she can stay on her feet,” Sandgren began. “She feel into the pool table and cracked a rib. Whoops. I’m glad she’s on the mend.”
Both Chung and Sandgren are great fighters on court. Either could win their quarterfinal. If Chung advances, he will make headlines in South Korea as the first to have achieved great heights in tennis. If Sandgren captures the coveted berth, he will become the first unseeded American to do so in over 25 years.
Welcome to the never never land of this Australian Open.