As the stakes grow, so does the legend of Aussie Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren

MELBOURNE, Australia -- As he watched the final desperation return from Dominic Thiem sail long, Tennys Sandgren dropped his racket onto the court as the Hisense Arena crowd roared. Sandgren walked to the net to embrace his latest fallen opponent, then walked several steps backward and extended both of his arms outward with a look on his face of total disbelief.

Sandgren claimed it was a pinch-me moment, and can you blame him?

This is, after all, a guy just off the Challenger Tour whose name is pronounced just like the sport he plays, even though that was never the intent from his parents. This is Tennys from Tennessee -- a 26-year-old who made his Australian Open main-draw debut this year and who on Monday took down the No. 5 player in the world to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.

Has Sandgren produced surprising results? Yes.

His best week ever on the main tour qualifies as one of the great feel-good stories in tennis in some time. It puts him on the verge of being the sports equivalent to a John Daly, a journeyman golfer who won a major -- the 1991 PGA Championship -- in his first year on the PGA tour.

Just think about how much Sandgren's life has changed in such a short period of time. Just over a week ago, he took a picture of all the gear supplied to him by a sports apparel company, and posted it on his Twitter page with the following caption: "Hopefully I'll have enough matches to go through all the gear in Melbourne."

That was before his first match, which he played out of the media spotlight on Court 12.

During Monday's 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-7 (7-9), 6-3 win over Thiem, Sandgren had television cameras in his face following his every move between points in the much more prominent setting of Hisense Arena. And after the win and the postmatch interview, he walked over to an adoring crowd to sign balls and programs of autograph seekers who, before Monday night, probably didn't even know his name.

"When you play Futures and Challengers for three, four years, you're playing in obscurity, there's not a lot of attention," Sandgren said over the weekend. "You play the game for other reasons. You don't play the game for money or attention."

That may be true. But as you win, the money tends to increase.

And so does the scrutiny.

During his postmatch news conference, Sandgren was asked about some of his social media posts and the people that he follows on Twitter. When his coach, sitting in the back of the room, attempted to change the subject, Sandgren insisted on addressing the questioner.

"What information you see doesn't dictate what you think or believe, I think it's crazy to think that," Sandgren said. "To say he's following X person, so he believes all the things that this person believes, I think that's ridiculous.

"I don't think any kind of engagement in that way dictates that you are right in there with that particular person. I don't think it works that way."

Sandgren, a guy who's never faced the media spotlight that's been on him this past week, handled the questioning that had nothing to do with tennis with the poise of someone who's been under the spotlight for years.

And it's the same way he has handled his opponents. You almost expected Sandgren to crumble against Thiem when the match entered the fifth set, considering the Futures and Challenger events he's been playing extend only to best-of-three sets.

But Sandgren broke Thiem in the set's sixth game, and followed that up by winning every point in the seventh.

Up 5-3 and serving for the match, Sandgren's first serve came off the court so wide that Thiem was pushed into the digital advertising stands that line the side of the courts.

Somehow, Thiem was able to make the return, but could not recover quickly enough to handle Sandgren's forehand winner.

Thiem didn't have a white flag to wave in surrender. But the way he looked skyward in disbelief at the end of the point, you knew he was done.

"He played extremely well," Thiem said. "He made me work a lot. An unbelievable result. He can go to the semis."

Yes, he can, especially after Novak Djokovic dropped his match Monday to Hyeon Chung, leaving an unseeded opponent between Sandgren and the final four.

When the Australian Open began a week ago, Sandgren had a player's box that included his coach and a few friends.

For the biggest match of his life against Thiem, that box had increased to a boisterous group that ran nearly 30 deep.

Too bad more people weren't there to witness the win. There was sparse attendance in Hisense Arena, with some sections completely empty.

Sandgren didn't mind. He's been used to playing in small events for small paychecks and little in terms of praise.

Now he steps onto the big court at Rod Laver Arena playing for bigger stakes than he ever could have dreamed of. He's guaranteed $352,000 for reaching the quarterfinals, which is a huge check considering coming into Melbourne, he'd earned $488,735 for his entire career.

His bank account has grown, and so has his confidence in playing against some of the best players in the world.

That's evident in the way his thinking has changed over the past week. Here's what he said about a deep tournament run after beating Wawrinka in the second round:

"I'm not sure. I'm not sure. The physicality, the fitness level, the shot-making, I don't know if I have that in me. I'm going to keep working and maybe I can get somewhere close to that. At least I'll do the best I can to try to. We'll see.

"I know that I'm good enough to do good things in the game. This is confirmation for me."