Tommy Paul had just joined his compatriot and partner Reilly Opelka for a second round doubles match against the iconic partnership of Bob and Mike Bryan. The Bryan twins upended Paul and Opelka 6-4, 6-3, but not before the underdogs went up a break in the opening set. Now, less than half an hour after that contest was over, I was on the telephone with Paul, asking him how it felt to compete against a team of that stature, ready to follow with more questions.
He said, “It was definitely a lot of fun. Me and Reilly started pretty well, but when we were ahead in the first set we probably thought a little too much. We came out just having fun and not thinking. But it was great for us. We see the Bryans a lot around tournaments. They are great guys who are really nice to us. It was good to have this experience of playing against them.”
A few days earlier, Paul had won his first match ever on the ATP World Tour level. Having made his mark primarily in the juniors, Futures and Challengers tournaments, Paul received a wildcard into Houston and took advantage of that opening, toppling Italy’s Paolo Lorenzi 6-2, 6-3. He bowed out 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 against Hyeon Chung, but Paul acquitted himself well in both matches. How gratifying was it to make the breakthrough in Texas?
Paul responds, “It was great for me.I was pretty nervous coming out for my first match but I started well and that got me really loose. I wanted to see after winning against Lorenzi if I could win a couple more. When I went up a set against Chung, I was thinking, ‘All right, let’s keep it going.’ He definitely raised his level a lot and it was tough for me. The quality of the points started getting a lot better and the rallies got longer. There were a lot of important points throughout the whole match and he seemed to get the edge on those, so hopefully next time I play him I can focus on getting the big points.”
Does Paul believe he can benefit from reviewing his matches on tape when they are available? Can looking at DVD’s afterwards to figure out what was working and what may have gone wrong be beneficial?
“I used to not watch any of my matches at all,” he replies, “but recently me and my coach Diego have been going back and watching some of the films of my matches, trying to analyze and learn from it. He is right there next to me and it is perfect because Diego can point out what he thinks and we can talk about it. We don’t always agree on everything but it is good to talk it over and find mutual ground. I have been working with him for about three years and get along with him the best I have ever gotten along with a coach.”
Now Paul will be appearing in three Challenger events in the coming weeks, with the leading player from that series of tournaments receiving a highly coveted wildcard into the French Open. He starts today in Sarasota, moves on to Savannah, and finishes up that swing in Tallahassee. Last year, Paul stopped Taylor Fritz in the final of the juniors at Roland Garros—he lost to his countrymen in the final of the U.S. Open juniors three months later—and he would de delighted to be in the main draw of the men’s division this time around. But he does not want to be preoccupied with the wildcard when he plays these upcoming Challengers.
“It may surprise you,” he asserts, “but when I think about those Challengers, I am not really thinking about the French Open wildcard. It is always there in the back of your head that if you do really well, there is a possibility you will get the French wildcard. But I really don’t think about it so much. I just think about one match at a time and try not to think about the wildcard.”
Clearly, Paul has an affinity for clay courts, and the Roland Garros Juniors triumph over Fritz in 2015 is a case in point. Why does clay seem to suit his game so well?
Paul answers, “When I was younger, I first started playing on clay. My first two years in tennis, between the ages of seven and nine, I played only on clay. Even the place that I practiced in North Carolina had only clay courts. So, even when I had a hard court tournament coming up, I would practice on clay leading up to it. “
Given his comfort on and liking for the surface, does Paul envision himself playing more frequently in clay court tournaments over the course of his career than other young Americans?
He takes a brief moment to gather his thoughts, then replies, “I mean, I wouldn’t say I always want to be playing just on clay, because I think of myself as an all court player. I know I have had most of my good results on clay, but the best tennis I have played so far was at the U.S. Open last year on hard in the qualifying [he lost in the first round of the main draw to Andreas Seppi]. I still have got to get more comfortable on grass but it is definitely my goal to be able to play well on all the surfaces, so I am going to play a normal schedule.”
And yet, the fact remains that the triumph over Fritz in that French Open junior title round contest was a defining moment in his career thus far. What did it mean to defeat a player of that caliber on such a significant occasion?
He responds, “It was great. There were three Futures before the French Open and I actually played Fritz in one of the semis of those tournaments. I won in three sets. So I felt pretty confident leading up to the final in Paris against Fritz. We both knew each other’s games well but I felt like I had the edge on the clay courts at that time. It was definitely a great moment for me. When I was younger, I always looked at the French Open as the tournament I most wanted to win, so it was unbelievable winning that junior title. I have such great memories of that trip to Europe.”
As Paul grew up and developed his game, was there someone out there in the upper reaches of the sport who inspired him in terms of shaping his style of play? Paul says, “Not really. I didn’t structure my game after anyone, but I definitely looked up to Andy Roddick. He was my idol growing up. I really loved his attitude on the court and liked watching him play. I felt he was a great role model. I remember the way he would walk around the court, always showing confidence. But I would not say I tried to make my game like anyone else. I thought I had my own type of gamestyle and I liked being different. It was definitely fun to play the way I wanted to play. I feel you need to be able to do everything, to play the whole court.”
To be sure, Paul is progressing steadily. He moved from No. 200 in the world before Houston to his current location at No. 191. There is more work to be done, and successes to be had. But a big part of the developmental process is learning from jarring setbacks, and putting inexplicable defeats into perspective. In the fall of 2015, Paul built what looked like an insurmountable lead over fellow American Noah Rubin in the final of Charlottesville, moving ahead 6-3, 5-1. But he came up short and could not close the account, losing in three sets.
As he recollects, ” It wasn’t easy. After I lost that match, I got pretty upset. I went back to the hotel and kind of just sat there and thought about it. I could not have set myself up better to win that match. Then I played two Challengers after that and I lost in the first round. I was down on confidence but the timing was perfect because I had the whole off season right after that. I ended my year and had time to regroup and think about starting this year fresh. That is what I did. I started off the year winning two Futures, so I knew I had the right approach to coming back after that loss to Rubin.”
What fundamental lesson had he learned from the loss? He responds, “I talked to all of my friends and coaches and they all said that it happens to everyone so they felt I should just let it go and learn from it, come back and work even harder. And that is what I did. I came back and did everything I could to start this year well.”
Here is a player on the rise who has competed in all kinds of situations and conditions, at Futures and Challengers, at ATP World Tour events and the U.S. Open, on all of the surfaces. How would he compare the Futures and Challengers to the big leagues of tennis?
Paul replies, “There is nothing better than playing the Grand Slams and the ATP World Tour events. The setup they have and the way they treat everyone is just so great, and you really feel like a player and feel like you belong there. The atmosphere is great. I like playing in that big atmosphere and have fun playing in front of people. That is the biggest difference. When you play in Futures, you can have some matches on back courts when there is not one person watching, so you struggle to stay super motivated the whole match, even in a tight match. You just want someone there clapping and giving some extra energy to the match. What makes the sport better and better are the bigger crowds. When I am a little tight and then hit a good shot and the crowd gets into it, I feel comfortable on the court like I belong, and it makes me relax.”
At the moment, Paul is surrounded by a wide range of fellow Americans in his age bracket, all striving for the pinnacle of the sport, all spurring each other on. The leader of the surging young pack from the U.S. is the remarkable Fritz, an 18-year-old who currently resides at No. 69 in the world. Jared Donaldson is 19 and ranked No. 144 in the world. Frances Tiafoe, 18 years or age, stands at No. 172 in the world. Noah Rubin, age 20, is ranked one place above Paul at No. 190. Stefan Kozlov is No. 225 in the rankings and he is 18. Last, but not least, Michael Mmoh is No. 319 in the world, and he is very promising at the age of 18.
This crop of players is far and away the most promising young American contingent in a very long time. As Paul says, “We all started doing well at a young age and we really started pushing each other. One person would get a little more serious on the court and then we would all get more serious. Then one person would really start killing it in the gym and get much stronger, and we all would feel we should do that. One person would start having better results and the rest of us would push each other with that. We have had a good group of kids and we are all friends. We are close and I think that is great. Hopefully we can get a lot farther than where we are now.”
How does he feel in particular about Fritz, who has skyrocketed into the top 70 in the world in no time flat? Paul says, “I don’t think anyone really saw him going up the rankings that quickly toward the top, but I definitely see he has great qualities for tennis. He really loves it and really wants to do well. Anyone who works hard and wants it that much can do it. It is really good that we are all friends with him and he can keep pushing us, even though we are not ranked as high as him right now. But I feel we are definitely pushing him, too.”
I mentioned to Paul that at Indian Wells recently, Tiafoe had a couple of match points against David Goffin before losing that match, and then Goffin went all the way to the semifinals of that tournament and the penultimate round in Miami, where the Belgian gave world No. 1 Novak Djokovic a stern test. What does that say about the levels of the game? Is there a thin line from where Paul is now to the top of the sport?
He answers, “I feel like we all have that level for sure. A lot of it is obviously mental right now, and a lot of it is about practice and repetition. It was a great match for Tiafoe against Goffin. He played really well. I definitely think we should be playing a lot of closer matches with these guys and some of us should get some wins against some of those guys.”
Tommy Paul is an interesting kid. He seems to have a realistic set of priorities, and goals that should be attainable. He concludes, “I definitely want to be in the main draw of Slams by the end of this year. I want to qualify and make a run and win a few rounds at a Slam this year. In the long run, all of us want to be No. 1 in the world. But I just want to do the best I can in these next three to five years and longer, keep working as hard as I can and see where I go.”
That kind of sensible perspective should take Tommy Paul to a location he will like in the not too distant future.