Tennys Sandgren, America’s controversial last hope in the Australian Open, delivered a parting shot at the media after he was bounced from the tournament with a quarterfinal loss and was called out mightily by Serena Williams.
Sandgren, who had been grilled after an earlier win with questions about his past engagements with far-right figures and conspiracy theorists on Twitter, drew critical coverage that cast a shadow on his impressive run on the court. After his 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loss to South Korea’s Hyeon Chung, he put the media on full blast.
“You seek to put people in these little boxes so that you can order the world in your already assumed preconceived ideas. You strip away any individuality for the sake of demonizing by way of the collective,” he said, reading a statement from his phone.
“With a handful of follows and some likes on Twitter, my fate has been sealed in your minds. To write an edgy story, to create sensationalist coverage, there are few lengths you wouldn’t go to mark me as the man you desperately want me to be.
“You would rather perpetuate propaganda machines instead of researching information from a host of angles and perspectives while being willing to learn, change and grow. You dehumanize with pen and paper and turn neighbor against neighbor. In so doing, you may actually find you’re hastening the hell you wish to avoid, the hell we all wish to avoid.
“It is my firm belief that the highest value must be placed on the virtue of each individual, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. It’s my job to continue on this journey with the goal of becoming the best me I can and to embody the love Christ has for me, for I answer to Him and Him alone.
“I’ll take questions about the match, if you guys don’t mind. Thank you. If you have any questions about the match.”
Sandgren’s presence in the quarters drew a fierce backhand from Serena Williams, watching at home Tuesday night. “Turns channel,” she tweeted.
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) January 24, 2018
On Wednesday morning, she followed up by demanding an apology, not for herself but for “an entire group of people” she believes deserves one. She included the message, “Maturity is being able to apologize and admit when you’re wrong because you know your mistakes don’t define you.”
Williams went on to say that she hoped to set an example for her baby daughter, Olympia Alexis, by speaking up. “I can’t look at my daughter and tell her I sat back and was quiet. No! She will know how to stand up for herself and others — through my example.”
@TennysSandgren I don't need or want one. But there is a entire group of people that deserves an apology. I cant look at my daughter and tell her I sat back and was quiet. No! she will know how to stand up for herself and others- through my example. ✊ pic.twitter.com/im2NhoMdN4
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) January 24, 2018
If Sandgren thinks the grilling he has gotten so far is bad, just wait. The tennis — and Tennys — season is just beginning and the French Open and Wimbledon media await.
Sandgren, a 26-year-old who was born in Tennessee, began playing tennis when he was 4 and, by the time he was 7, he was competing in tournaments. As a college student, he was a highly ranked singles player at the University of Tennessee.
But he had never experienced the intensity of the spotlight like this week, after the unseeded American defeated Dominic Thiem, the fifth-ranked player in the world, to advance to the quarterfinals in Melbourne, a win that instantly catapulted him onto the global stage.
He was instantly peppered with questions about his views. It’s 2018: American heroism is more complicated than it used to be. And there’s always a tweet.
Of course the story turns on tweets, contentious tweets, conspiracy theory retweets and others with negative misinformation about Muslims, pro-Trump and anti-Hillary tweets sent across the Internet in a time when Sandgren, with a modest 7,300 followers on the service as of Monday afternoon, was even less widely known. Until Monday night, they were available for all the world’s citizens, including bloggers and reporters, to see.
Sandgren’s Twitter career seemed to have started innocently enough in 2014, with a retweet of a gripe about airline service, some supportive statements about the U.S. men’s soccer team during the World Cup and a picture of a giant grasshopper on a tennis net.
“Hopper decided to join us for practice,” Sandgren wrote. “#bugslife.”
These were statements just about everyone can agree with.
As he used the service, he seemed to wear his thoughts on his sleeve.
“You know you are getting old when the excitement level is high after purchasing a knee brace,” he wrote in one.
“Mother’s Day, or better known as Super Hero Appreciation Day,” he wrote in another.
His Twitter bio included a joke that seemed to sum up his somewhat self-deprecating stance on social media: “I write all tweets on a napkin first to order my thoughts.”
These were not the remarks of a professional — athlete, social media user, anything. They were the tweets of a 20-something.
But at some point, Sandgren had begun engaging with more politically charged content, the volume of which seemed to increase during the 2016 presidential election. For Sandgren, that meant retweets of outlets such as Drudge Report and Infowars, and others about Sharia law and radical Islamic terrorism. He debated the former tennis player James Blake about racism and criticized former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his anthem protest.
Sandgren also engaged with people spreading rumors about “Spirit Cooking,” a misinformation campaign that sought to paint Hillary Clinton as a Satan-worshiping occultist, and Pizzagate, a similarly baseless conspiracy theory hoax that Clinton was connected to a pizzeria child sex ring, writing, “It’s sickening and the collective evidence is too much to ignore.”
Dude is running Kyrgios off the court. He also tweets a lot pic.twitter.com/ObCR8BbQOE
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) August 3, 2017
Perhaps Sandgren saw the storm swirling in the not-too-distant future for himself, retweeting a remark that posited that Ken Bone — an audience member at one of the presidential debates who became, in rapid succession, an Internet sensation, then Internet casualty after past remarks he made on web forums were unearthed — was “a metaphor for our culture.”
1 build someone up for no reason.
2 rip them apart for having opinions
3 Repeat until apocalypse
The tweet read. So it goes.
As Sandgren advanced through the Australian Open’s early rounds, a steady pace of people began commenting about Sandgren’s history on Twitter: his tweets, who he’d followed, which tweets he’d liked and retweeted.
Some referenced a critical blog post from 2016, headlined “Post-Trump Tennis Fandom,” that looked briefly at Sandgren’s politics via his Twitter feed.
— Austrollian Open (@TrollandGarros) January 18, 2018
And when Sandgren sat down for a news conference with reporters after his stunning win Monday, the question came.
“Tennys, the rise in your profile has drawn attention to your social media output, which includes some political figures who might be considered outside the mainstream,” the reporter asked. “Yeah, there was a #Pizzagate exchange at some point, and I just wondered if you were concerned about having yourself connected to some of these controversial figures.”
“I mean, no, I’m not concerned about it,” Sandgren responded.
A man identified by ESPN as his coach interjected, calling the question “ridiculous” in the hopes of moving on, but Sandgren called him off.
“It’s fine,” he said. “What information you see doesn’t dictate what you think or believe and I think it’s crazy to think that, I think it’s crazy to assume that, to say, ‘Well he’s following X person so he believes all the things that this person believes.’ I think that’s ridiculous.”
The reporter asked him if he supported the so-called alt-right, the far-right white-nationalist movement known for racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.
“I find some of the content interesting, but no, I don’t,” Sandgren said. “As a firm Christian, I don’t support things like that.”
But the damage had been done.
“What Does Pizzagate Truther Tennys Sandgren Find ‘Interesting’ About The Alt-Right?” Deadspin asked.
“Meet the Trump-loving, beer-chugging American making Australian Open magic,” the New York Post wrote.
“Tennys Sandgren says he is not a far-right sympathizer,” the BBC’s headline read.
The tweets began vanishing from Sandgren’s timeline until his whole feed had been wiped clean. In an interview Tuesday with ESPN, Sandgren distanced himself from the tweets, saying he was attempting to create “a version of a clean start.”
Sandgren was the first child of his immediate family to be born in the United States; the family had moved to the country after living in South Africa, where his brother Davey was born and his mother, Lia Sandgren, is from. The two boys were raised in Gallatin, Tenn., a town of about 30,000 outside of Nashville, where they were home-schooled and taught to play tennis by their mother and father, who was a teaching pro.
Though Sandgren’s first name is pronounced “tennis,” the family insists the similarity is just a coincidence. In interviews over the years, Lia has said that Sandgren was named after a great-grandfather, Tennys Sandgren, the child of Swedish immigrants in Michigan in the late 19th Century. But she has played along with the jokes.
“It’s a good thing our favorite sport wasn’t baseball,” she told the Associated Press in 2007. “Then we would’ve had to have named him Bat or something.”
After competing in juniors events, Tennys followed Davey to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In 2010, he helped take the team to the national championship as a freshman, where it lost to the University of Southern California. He decamped after his sophomore year to play professionally despite being in line to play as the team’s No. 1.
“We think the world of Tennys,” the team’s coach, Sam Winterbotham, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel at the time. “He does everything right. He’s a great student and a great teammate. Everyone wants him to be successful.”
Shortly thereafter, he was ranked the 720th player in the world. But he began to ascend the rankings, and in September, he cracked the top 100. He entered the Australian Open as the world’s 97th-ranked player.
In an interview with The Tennessean, Lia Sandgren said that her son’s equanimity in the face of media scrutiny made her proud.
“I have tremendous pride in how he’s handling himself with the media,” she told the newspaper. “How he’s being winsome and eloquent and speaking with a fabulous humility.”
She said that he loves the United States “with a passion.”
“That, to him is more important than tennis,” she said. “He’s distraught over the state of our country. He’s distraught over the division and he wants to do whatever he can in his little world to help heal things.”