HAMBURG, September 23, 2020 (by Alessandro Boroch)
When the average tennis fan hears the name Tommy Paul, the person might immediately think of his massive first-round battle against US Open champion Dominic Thiem at the French Open in 2019. At the end of the day in Paris, the now 23-year-old American, who was born in New Jersey, had to admit defeat in four close sets. But despite the loss, Paul won over many fans with his smooth and particularly aggressive playing style on court.
Tommy Paul grew up in Greenville, North Carolina with his parents and two siblings. When he was five years old, he became acquainted with tennis for the first time after his parents got him interested in the sport. Paul eventually entered the ITF juniors circuit at the young age of 13, playing his first tournament in October 2010.
It took Paul almost three years to make a name for himself on the juniors Tour, when he managed to finally win back-to-back “ITF Grade 4” tournaments in Plantation and Delray Beach on clay back in 2013. This success surely boosted his confidence, however, his next ITF juniors title would take a while to achieve.
Roland Garros junior title
After winning the low-level Grade 4 tournament in Delray Beach and prevailing in the USTA Boys’ 16 national championships, Paul was granted a wildcard for his maiden appearance in a major, playing the US Open junior Tennis Championship in 2013. His first-round opponent back then was none other than Borna Coric. Paul ended up going down 1-6, 2-6 quite easily without showing many signs of resistance. Coric was still too far away level-wise, and the edginess did not make it any easier. Interestingly, this encounter is still their last meeting to this day.
As mentioned before, it took Paul some time to win another juniors singles title. Notwithstanding, his next juniors title would become his most prestigious in his whole career so far and open the door for the next steps.
When Paul arrived in Paris in May 2015 to play the Roland Garros Junior French Championships, some experts were predicting him as the potential winner, even despite little success at junior level. This was simply due to the fact that Paul had been rummaging around on the ITF Pro Tour for some time already, and just won two ITF clay-court titles in this month. In the best form of his young career, Paul made it to the final of the Roland Garros junior competition without losing a set, finally defeating fellow US-American Michael Mmoh in the semi-finals, after previously losing to him several times.
In the final, he would eventually encounter another compatriot, namely Taylor Fritz, who later the year had become the first American player since Donald Young in 2005 to be crowned as ITF Junior World Champion. After three sets, however, it was not the future juniors No. 1, but Paul who would win the trophy, prevailing in three sets. Paul, alongside William Blumberg, also ended up as a runner-up in the doubles competition in Paris.
At the end of 2015, Paul and Fritz faced each other again in the final of the US Open Junior competition. This time, Fritz returned the favor of the defeat in Paris, overcoming Paul 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-2. The US Open in 2015 would remain Paul’s last appearance on the junior circuit, finishing on a ranking-high of World No. 3.
La española Paula Badosa y el estadounidense Tommy Paul los campeones junior de Roland Garros. (Getty Images) pic.twitter.com/yoFLTeTIeb
— Tenis Universal (@TenisUniversal) June 6, 2015
First steps on the pro tour
Paul officially turned pro in 2015 but had already played several ITF tournaments from 2013-2014 with little success. He managed to dig into his first Challenger main draw in April 2015 at the Savannah Challenger on green clay. Paul would not only celebrate his first main draw appearance here, but also his maiden main draw win after defeating Ruben Bemelmans before falling to Bjorn Fratangelo. As previously mentioned, Paul kept his momentum going and won two ITF titles on clay just a couple of weeks later.
In addition to the junior competition at the US Open 2015, Paul also took part in the men’s competition thanks to a qualifying wildcard. After the hype he received from his French Open juniors title, many countrymen were excited to see how he would fare here. Paul was able to withstand the pressure and actually profited from the crowd support, as he eventually managed to fight through the qualifying process after a surprising win over former World No. 52 Marco Chiudinelli in the final qualifying round.
However, the lack of experience and immaturity in his game ultimately became evident in his following first-round match, in which he had to admit a relatively easy defeat in straight sets against Italian veteran Andreas Seppi.
If you thought that Paul would not have been able to still sustain such massive success later the year, then you were plainly wrong. As the season was drawing to a close, Paul managed to make another big statement on court in November. In only his sixth main draw at Challenger-level in Charlottesville on indoor hard court, then 18-year-old Paul was able to reach his first final without losing a single set, ultimately losing to compatriot Noah Rubin after being unable to convert two championship points in a very tight three-set encounter. Paul reached a career-high ranking of World No. 263 after his run into the final. Not too bad, bearing in mind it was his first official year on the pro tour.
Setbacks and struggle with continuity
In the following years, Paul was able to add multiple more ITF titles to his trophy cabinet. His first five ITF titles all came on clay, until he finally won his sixth ITF trophy on hard court in 2017. His game, then as now, emerged to do more harm on slower courts, which actually is very uncommon for an US-American tennis player. With the passage of time, Paul was trying to establish himself on the challenger circuit, which turned out to become more difficult than expected, despite his pure talent and early success in 2015. It took him three years until he eventually reached another challenger final in 2018. Contrary to expectations of the majority, his second final once again took place on a fast indoor hard court and not on clay. Ironically, it was even at the same venue in Charlottesville where he still had good memories from his run in 2015.
Paul entered the main draw as a lucky loser, managed to produce upsets over Rubin (against whom he had lost the final in 2015), veteran Ivo Karlovic and ultimately Bradley Klahn on his way into the final. This time, the whole setting was different for him. It was not his first final, he was the huge favorite, more mature now, nothing to lose as a lucky loser, and also had the crowd support in a non-all-American final against Peter Polansky. From the very start, Paul was dictating the rallies from the baseline and hit some amazing returns with his powerful forehand to equalize Polansky’s big serve. Paul emerged victorious and finally won his maiden Challenger title by the score of 6-2, 6-2. He breathed a sigh of relief after his victory.
Victory!!! The moment has arrived for @TommyPaul1.
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) November 4, 2018
What has not been mentioned yet, is the fact that Paul’s struggle to consistently deliver good results was caused by valid and very crucial reasons. Lack of maturity and experience have been two little aspects, but the truth is that, early on, Paul’s career got overshadowed by a long list of injuries.
Following his victory in Charlottesville, Paul spoke to broadcaster Mike Cation about his injury struggle during that year: “I was just thinking how tough my year has been. In the beginning of the year, I started well in Australia. I was playing well, but I didn’t have the results that I wanted. I ended up getting injured [was dealing with a knee ailment] for five or six months and the comeback from that was really slow. I’m just thinking about that. It’s really nice to get the win here.”
Paul admitted in several interviews that his biggest mistake was that he paid too little attention to his body’s well-being in the early stages of his career. He never dealt with injuries in his junior years and therefore thought he would not need to improve many physical aspects in his game.
“In the past, when I’m not on the court or when I’m not at the center or training or at a tournament, I wasn’t thinking about tennis at all. But now I feel like I’m making a lot more my decisions based on what’s good for my tennis and just like keeping tennis in mind all the time. I’m really just trying to do everything I can,” Paul said in an episode from the “Beyond the Baseline” podcast hosted by Jon Wertheim back in mid-2019.
Breakthrough & first top 100 appearance
Even in his 2019 breakthrough season, Paul did not remain injury free. But compared to previous year, he learned what it was like to play with some pain. His mentality became significantly better. Already in January, Paul was forced to retire from his quarter-final match against Li Zhe at the Playford Challenger due to struggle with his lumbar spine.
Despite the ongoing pain, Paul decided to participate in the qualifying for the Australian Open just a week later. Less surprisingly, however, Paul failed to qualify. The injury was still of huge relevance and the hurdle against a grinder like Paolo Lorenzi was too high over three sets. After that, Paul did not play a professional tournament for three months.
In only his second tournament after a three-month hiatus, Paul was able to reach his first challenger final on clay. More precisely, on green clay in Sarasota. His final opponent was compatriot Tennys Sandgren, who had just won his maiden ATP title in Auckland a couple of months ago. Paul ended up demonstrating nerves of steel in the final, saving all 15 break points faced on his way to a 6-3, 6-4 win over the no. 2 seed.
Following his win, Paul had another interesting talk with broadcaster Mike Cation.
“This one feels good, I’m not going to lie. This one feels really good. Especially having the injury last year and coming back to win Charlottesville in October, but then getting injured again this year. I took a few months off again after Australia. It was really frustrating. But to come back again and win the title in my second tournament back is amazing.”
Paul, who was now almost twenty-two years old at that time, kept his momentum going in his next tournament at the Forestmeadows Tennis Complex in Tallahassee. He reached another challenger final on green clay but eventually fell short against Emilio Gomez from Ecuador, losing 2-6, 2-6.
Despite his defeat, Paul could not have been happier with his recent performances as he finally managed to deliver good tennis in back-to-back weeks.
After Paul struggled with a right shoulder injury in May for a short time, he finally stayed injury-free for the rest of the year. It was the opener for his first big-time matches on the main tour.
Paul was able to participate in his first ever French Open main draw on the pro circuit still in May 2019, when he was drawn to face (nowadays) two-time Roland Garros finalist Dominic Thiem. There was probably only one player in the draw that would have been considered a more difficult task, anyhow the young American remained composed and was aware of his small but existent chance of prevailing in this seemingly tough first-round match.
With the thought of having nothing to lose here, Paul started the match furiously and reminded the predominantly French audience why he once won the junior title here. After narrowly losing the first set, Paul gained the upper hand in the second set and forced a deciding tie-break in the third set. Despite leading 4-0 in the tie-break, Paul was not able to run away with a 2-1 lead in sets. For the very first time in the match, you could see his lack of experience. He started thinking. Overthinking. But who can blame him? He was about to be one set away from beating one of the best clay court players of the previous years, and not many fans expected him to even make it competitive over many hours. In the end, the lack of experience would make the difference. Thiem prevailed in four close sets.
In spite of it all, this particular match felt like the beginning for Paul’s bright future on the tour. He did not only gain lots of new fans with his performance, he also realized that he was capable of challenging the elite of the sport.
In the further course of the year, Paul was able to record more successes, such as qualifying for the Masters in Toronto as well as winning two more challenger titles on hard court that opened him the doors for his maiden entry into the top 100.
In this year’s season, which of course was largely overshadowed by the ongoing pandemic, Tommy Paul drew attention by beating Alexander Zverev in Acapulco and thus securing his first top 10 victory. Paul had also reached the semi-finals in Adelaide and was able to defeat former world No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov in a five-set thriller at the subsequent Australian Open. The American from New Jersey afterwards titled this battle as “the craziest match of his career” so far. Paul is currently on the verge of entering the top 50 in the rankings, being ranked on World No. 59.
His playing style
Paul describes his own playing style as “anything but boring”. He likes to entertain the crowd with high-risk tennis, particularly with the help of his powerful forehand. The 23-year-old American is 6-foot-1 tall and has amazing movement abilities. Therefore, it is also not of great surprise that clay is his best surface statistically. When asked about his strengths on clay, Paul said in an interview with Tennis TourTalk at this week’s Hamburg European Open that he grew up playing on clay and that he thinks that his movement just goes very natural on this surface, which is anything but normal for an American tennis player. Furthermore, he prefers to play on European clay instead of green clay, even though having much more experience on the slippery and faster American clay.
Diego Moyano, a former longtime coach from Paul, openly praised the basic athleticism and much-improved serve from his former protégé in an interview with ESPN back in 2019.
“Paul added about 12 mph to his average serve speed in the late winter of 2017, raising his average speed to roughly 120 mph. He tops out at around 135 mph.”
Despite his bigger success on clay, Paul describes himself as an all-round player. He does not prefer any surface over others and has also proven that he can be competitive at a high level on every ground. He has great variation in his game and also does not shy away from visiting the net. His lack of composure and his shot selection, which is often a bit too risky or gambling, has so far prevented him from taking the next big step on the main tour.