Looking back across the last bunch of seasons, no one in American tennis among the men has made more inroads than Tommy Paul. At the end of 2018, he stood at No. 201 in the ATP Rankings. A year later, he advanced to No. 90. He concluded a disrupted 2020 campaign at No. 54 in the world.
And yet, despite his steady advance to his current location just outside the Top 50, Paul is not entirely content.
As he explains, “I am not super thrilled about being where I am raking-wise right now, but I am also not upset with it. My goal for 2020 was Top 50 and to win an ATP 250 tournament. If we had played a full year, I would be upset with where I am now in the rankings, but, since so much of the year got cut out, I am kind of giving myself a break about that.”
As well he should be. Paul had done some remarkable work at the outset of 2020 Down Under, making it to the semifinals after qualifying in Adelaide, and reaching the third round of the Australian Open after winning his first two matches ever at a major, including a five-set roller coaster ride against 2017 semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov. He was off and running.
“Everything was clicking pretty nicely at the beginning of the year,” recalls Paul. “I played well in Adelaide, but I got to Melbourne not feeling great with my stomach and having a little fever. In my first round match—and also the day before I played Grigor—I was feeling sick. But luckily the day of the Dimitrov match, I woke up feeling great. I got up two sets but when I lost the third and got down in the fourth I knew I could be in trouble physically. But my body held up and I won in a fifth-set tiebreak. That was the most fun match I have ever played, especially late in the fifth. That was magic for me.”
Paul moved on the next month to Acapulco, upending Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-4, in that tournament to reach the quarterfinals.
Asked to compare the experience of defeating the world No. 7 to his triumph over Dimitrov on a larger stage, Paul responds, “I would still lean towards Grigor being my biggest win because it was in a bigger tournament and it was just a better feeling, and my first five-set win. But against Zverev I knew I could win that match. That was definitely good for my confidence. I came out playing well and got a break. He was struggling with his serve. I took advantage and rolled with it.”
But, not long after that, everything came to a halt not long after with the pandemic and the suspension of the ATP Tour. At that point, Paul was ill.
As he remembers, “When everything first got canceled, I was actually really sick out in L.A., getting ready for Indian Wells. I had to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days. That kind of sucked.”
Paul returned to Florida after that trying fortnight and soon found a good routine. As he says, “For probably two weeks, I didn’t practice at all, but after that I went to three days a week and pretty quickly it went up to five. I practiced at a court in our neighborhood in Boca Raton and I would sometimes go to Jupiter where somebody I knew had a court in their backyard. It was definitely different.”
The months passed slowly, but soon enough Paul was back in business, traveling to New York for the Western & Southern Open and the US Open. But he did not fare well there, or in his next outing in Rome at the Italian Open. Paul—disoriented by competing with no spectators in surreal surroundings— did not win a match in that stretch.
He remembers, “The hardest thing for me was to figure out in those three tournaments how to have fun on the court and at the same time not have anybody watching. It wasn’t easy for me after we started playing again. I was not happy with the way I was feeling on the court. I couldn’t motivate myself to get going and finish off matches.
“It sucks playing without fans. Even just having some people there in the stands is so much better than when there are none. You are playing for a lot of money and a lot of ranking points, but just having people watching motivates me. I imagine a lot of other athletes feel the way I do. I changed a few things with my mindset. I was getting used to it. Unfortunately it took me three or four weeks instead of one match to do that.”
That burdensome slump ended in his next appearance on the clay in Hamburg, where he qualified and beat Kevin Anderson to reach the round of 16. Paul lost in three sets to Andrey Rublev, but his self-belief was restored as he headed to Paris for the French Open.
“Hamburg helped me a lot,” he recollects. “I had a couple of good matches there and that tournament was a big turning point for me. Even when I lost to Rublev I played really well.”
He won a round at Roland Garros and later in the autumn reached the quarterfinals at Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan. In his last tournament of the season, Paul lost to Stan Wawrinka in the second round at the Paris Masters 1000 event after moving within striking distance of a straight-set victory.
He says, “I had break points to serve for the match in the second set. I am still bummed out about that loss.”
All in all, however, he had an uplifting season. Through it all, he was boosted immeasurably by Brad Stine, one of the premier coaches in tennis. Stine has been around the sport’s top level of coaching ever since he worked with Jim Courier in the early 1990s. His keen eye for detail, comprehensive technical and tactical knowhow and reassuring demeanor have been immensely important in Paul’s progression.
“I have known Brad for a very long time,” says Paul.
“I love working with him. He was working at the USTA back when I was working with Diego Moyano as a junior. We have always had a really good relationship and he is a great guy to hang out with. I have always liked his coaching style, which has meshed well with my personality and game style. He is a lot of fun and he makes it relaxing for me.”
Asked if Stine motivates him by being tough with constructive criticism, Paul responds, “I would not say he is too tough on me. But he definitely tells me when I am doing something wrong or need to do something better. For instance, he is constantly trying to get me to stop sliding on hard courts. I haven’t stopped it completely, but I have definitely made strides because he has told me about it a million times. He has improved my footwork overall and he is the guy I talk to before a match about a game plan. Brad has been around the sport forever as a coach. He knows it all.”
In concert with Stine, Paul is looking to revamp his game these days. He believes that coming forward more frequently could make him an even more formidable player.
“I want to start coming in a bunch this next year,” he says. “I would like to play like Tim Henman—not exactly like him, but a bit. That would be a big change for me, but a good one. Brad liked Tim’s game style a lot and I think it would help me if I can get to the net more and make myself more of an all court player.”
In addition to reshaping the way he plays the game, Paul is determined to do something he was unable to achieve in an abbreviated 2020 season–capturing an ATP singles title.
“I need to get myself a title at some point pretty soon here,” asserts Paul. “That is my goal, starting with an ATP 250 tournament. I have not set a specific ranking goal for next year but I know how much I want to win a title, to end the week with a win. I haven’t done that in a long time.”
At the moment, Paul is training diligently for the 2021 season, enthused about returning to Melbourne for another Australian Open, and waiting to find out about the revised February dates to determine when he will travel to the land “Down Under”.
“The only thing I need to know,” he says, “is when I should book my flight to go down there. I am not too involved with knowing what is going on behind the scenes. Brad Stine is on top of that. He gives me updates here and there about the Australian Open dates, but right now I am in the gym, getting out on the court and doing my training. I keep my focus on that.
“It is a challenge for everyone right now to build up for tournaments. I would not complain too much, though, because at least we are able to play. It is nice in some ways to spend more time at home as we have in the last year. But I can’t wait to go back to Australia.”
Paul accepts the unpredictability of his world and understands that some matters are out of his control. He keeps pushing along purposefully to make certain he is ready for 2021 and a late start.