- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
TOKYO — If nothing else, Tennys Sandgren is honest about the position he finds himself in as the last hope for American tennis to avoid being shut out from the medal stand at the these Olympics, something that hasn’t happened since 1920, when no Americans entered the tournament.
“To be fair, we probably shouldn’t even be playing,” Sandgren said, referring to himself and doubles partner Austin Krajicek, who only made the U.S. team because the highest-ranked American men decided that playing an ATP 250 event in Atlanta this week would be a better use of their time.
But regardless of how they made it here, Sandgren and Krajicek could very well leave with a bronze medal. After losing a brutally close 6-4, 6-4 semifinal to the world’s No. 1-ranked doubles team of Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic of Croatia on Thursday, they’ll return Friday to face New Zealand’s Marcus Daniell and Michael Venus for third place.
“We’ll both be champing at the bit, I’m sure, and it’ll be tough to contain the energy,” Sandgren said.
In a world where we knew less about our athletes, where we didn’t have access to so many of their thoughts and beliefs, the opportunity for a couple journeyman pros to attain something so significant for Team USA would be universally hailed as one of the feel-good stories of the Tokyo Olympics.
And yet, Sandgren understands as well as anyone that a lot of tennis fans – a lot of American tennis fans – will be actively rooting for him to lose Friday.
“Everything is polarizing,” Sandgren said. “Everything is turned into something that it isn’t.”
In this instance, Sandgren wasn’t talking about himself, though he easily could have been. He was answering a question about the discourse back in the U.S. that has bubbled up since Simone Biles pulled out of the team all-around competition due to mental health concerns, a moment that has become catnip for some politically conservative talking heads.
“I have no idea what it’s like to have the weight of that much expectation on your shoulders,” Sandgren said. “Everybody should be respecting her and respecting her choice and respecting how she’s doing and how she’s dealing with being a human because she’s a human first. I think that’s the most important thing and all this other polarization nonsense is people kicking political footballs.”
Of course, suggesting that Biles’ situation or the general discussion around athletes’ mental health is a symbol of American decline is little more than a ridiculous outrage grift.
But it’s no longer an outlier.
At these Olympics, large numbers of Americans are rooting against the U.S. men’s basketball team because Gregg Popovich was an outspoken critic of former President Trump. Just a few days ago, Trump encouraged a crowd at one of his events to boo the U.S. women’s soccer team, which had lost its first match of the Olympics.
This is where we are. And it’s where we are with Sandgren, too, albeit from the other side of the political spectrum.
When Sandgren made an out-of-nowhere run to the Australian Open quarterfinals after years of toiling in tennis’ minor leagues, it sent people scurrying to figure out who this guy from Nashville was. As we tend to do these days, the first place they went was his Twitter feed – and what they found was a lot of interaction with far-right political figures, some conspiracy theory discourse, a Twitter interaction with former top-10 player James Blake that suggested he doesn’t believe systemic racism exists in America and a years-old homophobic joke.
NEVER MISS A MEDAL: Sign up for our Olympics newsletter now
OLYMPIC TEXTS: Get exclusive access to the Games
Sandgren deleted the Tweets, did the apology tour and said it was wrong to judge him off a handful of social media posts. But minds were made up right then, and perhaps not entirely unfairly. Even if he doesn’t believe some of the things he tweeted about several years ago, he still leans into conservative politics on occasion and even sent a Tweet the day after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that began oddly: “Yesterday held tragedy, but the shape of the day has been forming for a long time.”
When that is your worldview, out there for everyone to see, there will inevitably be people who are indifferent at best about the prospect of Sandgren standing on the podium with a bronze medal and the colors of Team USA.
“Everything in the States is polarizing politically, so everybody draws their line,” he said. “I mean if people want to root against me, I don’t really give a (expletive) at this point. What do you want from me? I don’t care. I don’t care. It doesn’t affect me even a little bit.”
Regardless of how some fans might feel about Sandgren, he and Krajicek becoming surprise medalists here would be an objectively big deal for American tennis, which has had a miserable time in Tokyo. Since the sport was reinstated to the Olympics in 1988, the U.S. has won 14 gold medals, three silver and six bronze. The worst showing came in 2004 when the only medalist was Mardy Fish, who made it to the men’s singles final.
“I couldn’t really give a (expletive) about if the U.S. doesn’t medal for the first time since whenever,” Sandgren said. “So I don’t know, it’s not my responsibility especially when if our full roster plays I’m not even here. I’m grateful to be here, I’m grateful to be competing for my country and fighting for every point.”
Sandgren is right that it shouldn’t be up to him to save face for an American team that had all of its top men opt out. The women’s side was similarly decimated by the withdrawls of Serena Williams and Sofia Kenin and a COVID-19 positive that disqualified Coco Gauff at the last minute.
But now, whether American tennis fans like it or not, there’s only one option left for glory at the Tokyo Olympics. When Sandgren takes the court Friday, will they care more about patriotism or his Twitter history? These days, for better or worse, that is never an easy call.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tennys Sandgren is USA's last chance for Tokyo Olympics tennis medal