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O’Boyle: Sandgren’s success shouldn’t overshadow rising questions

| Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s natural to root for the underdog, especially in a sport you may not pay year-round attention to.

And if they’re the last American standing in their competition, well, it would seem obvious for American fans to root for their compatriot.

And if they have something else worth liking, even if it’s just a fun name, all the better.

Tennys (pronounced like the sport) Sandgren of Tennessee probably felt a lot of pressure to make it as a professional tennis player. But entering this year’s Australian Open with 96 players ranked higher than the 26-year-old, Sandgren has never had as much success as you would hope for a player with his name. His career-high ranking was 85, and he had never won a match at a Grand Slam until last year. He had made his career playing Challenger and Futures events until last year, when he finally made appearances at ATP Tour events and broke into the world’s top-100.

At this year’s first Slam, a first-round victory over Frenchman Jeremy Chardy wasn’t a huge shock, but nobody expected the winner to stand a serious chance against 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka. Yet Sandgren pulled off the straight-sets upset for his first-ever top-10 win.

After coming from a set down against Frenchman Maximilian Marterer in the third round, Sandgren then played one of the most thrilling matches of the tournament so far, losing a fourth-set tiebreaker 9-7, only to defeat No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem with a 6-3 final set.

On the surface, it looks like a fantastic underdog story. The little-known player, who had achieved nothing at an age when many stars have already peaked made a shocking run to the quarterfinals. Facing world No. 58 Chung Hyeon early this morning, he may even have booked a semifinal spot, potentially against Roger Federer, by the time you read this.

Yet a sudden rise in fame means a sudden increase in scrutiny. And the Sandgren story, while still a rare feat, becomes harder to root for when you learn a little more about Sandgren.

Sandgren never earned the prize money that allows for a professionally-curated, non-controversial social media presence. Instead, he’s been happy to share a few of his own thoughts. And those are not always pleasant. Sandgren first drew questions for following a few notable alt-right figures on Twitter, including one user who attended the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, but dismissed the idea that this means he must espouse their beliefs. However, his online activity goes beyond who he follows. In 2016, Sandgren tweeted that the “Pizzagate” theory — the belief that Hillary Clinton and DNC Chair John Podesta were linked to a pedophilia ring based out of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant — was “sickening and the collective evidence is too much to ignore,” while he also claimed that Clinton was linked to Satanic rituals. A few follows of controversial figures could perhaps have been looked past if Sandgren presented a solid excuse, but it’s clear that Sandgren’s beliefs go much further than that. Even Sandgren’s excuse for who he followed leaves more questions than answers, describing the alt-right’s ideas as “interesting.” He may have denied a connection, but why is Sandgren so interested in the ideas of groups known for promoting racial hatred?

Sandgren’s achievements over the past week have been impressive, there’s no denying that. But with his newfound fame, Sandgren is now a potential role model to children, and has to answer for his activity online. If anything is “too much to ignore,” it’s the potentially hateful beliefs of a player who may otherwise be looked up to by many.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel