At Roland Garros, 22-year-old American Tommy Paul was in prime position to spring a stunning upset. The 2015 Paris Boys’ Singles champion was knotted at one set all against 2018 finalist Dominic Thiem, who over the past few years has established himself as one of the best clay-court players in the world.
In the third-set tie-break, Paul took a 4/0 lead. But he’d lose seven of the next eight points to drop the set, ultimately dropping the match in four sets. There were many things going through the American’s head when he walked off the court, but he felt he belonged. He was not out of his element at all.
“One hundred per cent. I was pissed because I should have won the third set,” Paul told ATPTour.com. “There were a lot of things going through my mind after that match, but one of them was definitely that I’m really not far from that level at all. I felt like I could have beaten him that day. I felt like I almost should have beaten him that day.
“It just makes you want to beat him.”
Opportunities on the sport’s biggest stages against the best players in the world don’t come around often. And sometimes, the spotlight that comes with those moments can shine too bright. But the pressure did not faze Paul.
In his mind, performing in that setting against a superstar like Thiem was something he was capable of doing. The former junior World No. 3 believes he has the level to be comfortable in those situations.
“Everybody’s searching for more. I’m obviously searching for more, but I definitely feel like my game is there. I can play with anybody, I know that,” Paul said. “Anyone who watches some of the matches against the top guys can see that, too. I think it’s more just having the experience of playing against them and having those matches.”
Paul qualified for this week’s Coupe Rogers, an ATP Masters 1000 tournament. And he wasted little time in earning a victory in the first round of the main draw, needing only 65 minutes to move past home favourite Brayden Schnur.
After the match, the first thing Paul did was go to the gym. For most of his career, that has not been the norm. In fact, he quickly said, “definitely not”.
“Now I’m travelling with a trainer,” Paul said. “He’s been helping out just these past couple weeks since Atlanta. I still haven’t gotten over the fact that all he does is drink mate. I hate it. But we’ll get over that. I think it’s good, just taking care of my body even when I lose matches, just keep going back to the gym and taking care of my body.”
Nagging injuries have plagued him at moments when he believed he was playing good tennis. The American missed nearly three months earlier this year due to a quad tendon issue. Last season, he dealt with a knee ailment for a majority of the year. Paul knew he had to make a change, because not always doing things “the right way” was beginning to cost him.
“I had a couple pretty annoying injuries that set me out six months at a time. Those weren’t fun and I just made a decision that I want to do everything I can to prevent injuries and keep my body flexible,” Paul said. “That’s part of the reason I have the trainer on the road with me right now and work with physios when I’m on the road.”
Last November, Paul claimed his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Charlottesville, Virginia. After defeating Peter Polansky in the final, he knelt down near his chair to reflect on the tough 2018 he endured. Paul won his second Challenger crown in April.
“I’m having fun. When you’re playing well, you’re always having fun. In the gym, it’s not always so fun,” Paul said. “But I’m hanging out with a lot of cool people, having fun off the court, having fun on the court, so it’s good.”
And perhaps most importantly, now at a career-high No. 128 in the ATP Rankings, Paul has been spending more time at tour-level events, having not played a Challenger since the first week of June. He’s starting to build up momentum by stringing matches together at the highest level, last week falling in a tight two-setter against Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Citi Open.
“This is where I want to be. Obviously I’m happy that I’m playing these tournaments… the level from here to Challengers is closer than you think, though,” Paul said. “Of course these guys can play and they’re the best in the world, but everyone can play, even in the Challengers. I’m happy that I’m here.”
Paul is moving closer to joining the ranks of his fellow rising Americans, with close friends Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka both having the best seasons of their careers. That too is a motivator for Paul.
“Definitely. Fritz had his breakout a lot earlier. It’s much easier to invest in your career when you break out a lot earlier. He did a really good job with that early. He was very professional right out of juniors. He knew what he wanted and he did it. I’m happy for him and that’s definitely the way he should do it. Reilly was always good about investing in his career when he could. That’s a big thing,” Paul said. “I’m always happy for them, but obviously I want to do that too. I want to win every tournament I play, but when they do well and as long as they’re not beating me, I’m happy that they’re winning at tournaments.”
John Isner is the No. 1 American, and he defeated Paul in a drama-less straight-sets victory two years ago in Cincinnati. But the 15-time ATP Tour champion believes that his countryman has truly grown since.
“I think Tommy is finally starting to figure it all out. I think he’s dealt with a lot of injuries. His confidence has been up and down, but nobody’s ever really doubted his ability or talent. But sometimes it takes a while to figure it out and he’s still so young,” Isner said. “But he’s now 22 years old and he’s finally starting to figure it out on Tour. His talent is immense and he’s got a great game. I think if he keeps on this path, we’re going to be seeing him in a lot of big tournaments for a lot of years to come.”.
Paul has proven he’s capable. Now it’s just about executing, and he’ll have another chance to do so on Wednesday against seventh-seeded Italian Fabio Fognini.