May 23, 2017 / 1:11 AM / 3 months ago

Opportunity knocks in Paris for Tennessee's Mr. Tennys

LONDON (Reuters) - Tennys Sandgren describes himself as a walking coincidence.

Tennys, the pro tennis player who happens to come from - you've guessed it: Tennessee.

From the moment he began swinging a racket as a four-year-old in Gallatin the significance of his moniker was not lost on him, although his ambition back then was not to match idol Andre Agassi, just not be "bad" at a sport he shares his name with.

"I figured that with my name I can't be bad at the sport," he told Reuters by telephone. "I didn't think I had to be particularly good, but at least functional!

"You can't be named like a sport if you suck at it. No added pressure to be sensational. But I think I've done my job."

It is hard to argue with that.

Next week the 25-year-old American make his grand slam debut, having earned a wildcard for the French Open.

Earned is the operative word, because this was no free meal ticket for the world number 115.

Sandgren, who thought his career was over in 2013 when he needed hip surgery, came through the United States Tennis Association's (USTA) Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge - a series of Challenger level claycourt events in the U.S.

The man and woman with the most ranking points from their best two events were rewarded with a main draw slot for the claycourt slam that begins on Sunday.

Sandgren knew he had a chance, having qualified for his first ATP Tour 250 event in Houston.

A week later he reached the final of the Sarasota Challenger and, after a first-round defeat in Tallahassee, got back on a roll in Savannah, Georgia.

Walking out on court against Swiss Henri Laaksonen he knew victory would seal the French Open wildcard and delivered, winning in a third-set tiebreak.

"I thought it was possible going into Houston," said Sandgren, whose tennis-mad parents named him after his Swedish great grandfather. "But the results were better than expected and I was in a little of disbelief."

TENNIS UNIVERSE

The wildcard, which he says could be career-changing, is reward for a player who inhabits a different tennis universe to the game's stellar names.

His experiences on the lower rungs where even winning a Futures tournament might only earn him $1,000 and anything else leaves him out of pocket have hardened him.

"I reached a career high of 180 at the end of 2013 when I won my first Challenger, then I hurt my hip and was out for seven months," he said. "Coming back from that was difficult.

"Back at the lowest level of tournaments and they're hard because everybody's good! All hungry. If you have an easy match in Futures you go home and thank your lucky stars."

With money tight, Sandgren spends much of his time on the U.S. Challenger circuit, staying at the homes of members of local clubs to keep down costs. "Without those people I don't think I would have been able to do it," he said.

He clocks up the car miles too, covering huge distances with Metallica blasting out of the stereo.

"Not afraid to get in the car and haul out a long drive," he said. "I drove 13 hours on the Friday to reach Sarasota from Nashville. Then played on Monday. Wasn't feeling great Saturday."

It all paid off though, even if the celebrations after winning the Savannah title were modest.

"My coach (Jim Madrigal) and I had dinner at Cracker Barrel a few hours into the drive home. Glamorous! Had cobbler for breakfast."

Sandgren is warming up at an event in Lyon before heading to the French capital where he has fond memories of knocking up with claycourt king Rafael Nadal in 2009.

"I hit with him twice! A crazy experience he was an awesome guy, super humble and super physical. I was a junior and remember being gassed just in a warm-up.

"We played 45 minutes straight and didn't sit down once."

So how would he feel if Friday's draw paired him with the Spaniard who will be chasing a 10th Roland Garros title?

"I might book my ticket home early!! It would certainly be a special experience to go against him in Paris but he's not someone I would want to see anywhere near my name.

"If it happened it would be awesome and I would compete my hardest and try to give him a run for his money."

Whatever happens Sandgren will make an impression in Paris -- even if only for the handlebar moustache he is nurturing.

"I'll keep it going unless it starts to annoy me," he said.

"...I've done well since I've had it so it's a no-brainer, I can't afford to shave it. Don't know what others think, but it's a solid moustache."

Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by John Stonestreet

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