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MATCH POINT: Paul sends Zverev packing

When Tommy Paul and Alexander Zverev reached a third-set tiebreaker late on Sunday night in Indian Wells, U.S. tennis fans may have had two contradictory emotions—excitement and fear—running though their minds and hearts.

The excitement came from the dynamic way that Paul, a 24-year-old New Jersey native, had played against his much more high-profile opponent. He had committed himself to aggression, to moving forward, to taking the ball on the rise, to playing the net, and he had stuck by that game plan through thick and thin.

The fear came from the fact that American fans had already seen this type of performance a few times before in Indian Wells, and then seen it all come apart in a final-set tiebreaker. That’s what happened to J.J. Wolf, who lost 7-5 in a third-set breaker to Roberto Bautista Agut. That’s what happened to Jack Sock, who led by a mini-break in two different tiebreakers against Stefanos Tsitsipas, only to lose them both 7-5. And that’s what happened to Sebastian Korda, who served for the match twice against Rafael Nadal, before losing in a third-set breaker.

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Zverev accounts for two of Paul's four Top 10 victories.

Zverev accounts for two of Paul's four Top 10 victories.

It’s a scenario and a theme that predates Indian Wells. The U.S. has been producing more Top 100 ATP players than any other country for a while, and now half a dozen of those young players—Reilly Opelka, Taylor Fritz, France Tiafoe, Korda, Paul, and Jenson Brooksby—have risen into the Top 50. But the U.S. hasn’t had anyone break into the Top 10 or join the Next Gen elite. So far the American men of this generation have remained a notch below guys like Zverev, Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Matteo Berrettini, Casper Ruud, and Jannik Sinner. At last year’s US Open, Brooksby, Tiafoe, and Opelka all made waves during the first week, but no one from the U.S. reached the quarterfinals.

The million-dollar question, of course, is why. Some say that the country’s best athletes don’t gravitate toward tennis, but I’d put the athleticism or Paul and Tiafoe up against just about anyone’s. Some point out that U.S. technique doesn’t match that of players from other countries, and this can obviously be true. But I’d also say Korda’s game is as clean as you could ask. Some say Americans don’t work as hard, and get ahead of themselves with wild cards and endorsement contracts that aren’t available to players from smaller countries. Yet Brooksby, for one, appears to be fully committed to the hard road to success.

There’s probably some truth in all of these above criticisms, as well as a few others, but there’s still no single answer to the age-old question of “What’s wrong with American men’s tennis?’ Is it possible that means we should stop asking it?

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For anyone who cares enough to pay attention on a weekly basis, this is a promising and entertainingly varied moment for the U.S. men’s game. On Sunday night, it was also a satisfying one. Instead of tightening up or getting away from his game plan in the third-set tiebreaker against Zverev, Paul actually hit bigger and played better than he had all match. Yes, Zverev, double faulted away a service break earlier in the set, but he didn’t give anything away at the end. Paul had to take it, and he did, by finding the right mix of aggression and margin, of daring and belief. For once this week, U.S. fans’ fears weren’t realized, which felt like a breakthrough.

“I played a really high level today,” Paul said. “I was happy with the way I stuck with my game plan…my commitment to coming to the net; I served and volleyed pretty well.”

The American men have chances for more breakthroughs in the coming rounds. Opelka takes on Denis Shapovalov today; Brooksby takes on Tsitsipas tonight; Tiafoe takes on Rublev on Tuesday; and doubles partners Fritz and Paul are into the third round. There’s a decent chance, of course, that the Americans will come out on the losing end against their higher-ranked opponents. But that shouldn’t lead U.S. fans back to a state of despair. The country doesn’t have a Pete Sampras or a John McEnroe at the moment, but it does have possibilities.

With his win over Zverev complete, Paul cupped his hand to his ear and asked the audience to make some noise. The U.S. fans were happy for the chance to give it to him.

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