Don’t misunderstand him: Tommy Paul is happy, thrilled even for his friends and fellow Americans Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Frances Tiafoe, all of whom cracked the Top 40 and won ATP Tour titles before the age of 23.
As a boy, Paul crisscrossed the globe for junior tournaments with them and competed for junior Grand Slam titles against them. All four turned professional in 2015.
But five years later, as the aforementioned trio looks to win their second ATP Tour titles and perhaps crack the Top 20 in 2020, he thinks it’s past time they had reason to applaud him.
He’s happy for their success, but more than that, he’s motivated by their achievements and wants to match or pass his counterparts. Having spent years trying to make it to the ATP Tour, Paul feels he’s ready to make it on the ATP Tour this season.
He has a new attitude, a new coach and an enhanced sense of urgency that now is the time for him to make good on the potential that he showed as one of the world’s best junior players just a few years ago.
“We all try and motivate each other. Everyone is happy for everyone when we do well,” Paul told ATPTour.com in Adelaide. “I’m sure when I start doing better they’re going to be happy for me. I’ve had a lot of time to be happy for them, though, you know?”
In 2015, the four young Americans were essentially even. He beat Taylor Fritz in the Roland Garros junior boys final to become only the sixth American to win the title and, a few months later, lost in three sets to Fritz in the US Open junior boys championship.
Two years later, in August 2017, Paul beat No. 17 Lucas Pouille, No. 21 Gilles Muller and had three match points against then-No. 5 Kei Nishikori for a place in the Citi Open semi-finals in Washington, D.C.
Paul, so it seemed, was arriving on the ATP Tour. But he’s fluctuated since, reaching No. 151 in the FedEx ATP Rankings in 2017 but falling back down to No. 204 as recently as April 2019. Last May, in another high point, Paul was a few points away from taking a two-sets-to-one-lead against Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros.
“He’s shown flashes of brilliance,” said new coach Brad Stine, who helped Jim Courier reach No. 1 years ago and most recently took Kevin Anderson to the Wimbledon final and a new career-high of No. 5.
Now, however, Paul and Stine think he’s at ATP Tour level to stay. The American, No. 90 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, cracked the Top 100 last year on the back of three ATP Challenger Tour titles. On Tuesday at the Adelaide International, he beat Aljaz Bedene for his first win of 2020.
Paul next faces Uruguay’s Pablo Cuevas for a place in the quarter-finals, which would be his first at tour-level since his near-miss against Nishikori in 2017.
“He can play, it’s just getting over the hump a little bit,” Stine told ATPTour.com. “I think timing wise, he’s more mentally, emotionally prepared right now to make the sacrifices that you need to make to be a more successful tennis player than what he’s been so far.”
To Stine, that means becoming a more disciplined player on and off the court and cleaning up old habits. Within their first week of working together, just after the 2019 US Open, Stine gave Paul a list of 11 things that he needed to adjust, eliminate or add to his game, and all were technically oriented.
One item: Stop sliding to forehands – on hard courts and clay courts – with a closed stance. Paul had practised that particular bad habit for years and his only option from that position was a squash-style forehand. His friends and opponents were all aware of the fundamental error as well.
“First of all, it’s wrong. Second of all, it doesn’t create the ability to actually hit a good shot. And third, you’re going to hurt yourself,” Stine remembers telling Paul.
The 22-year-old didn’t argue or come up with a list of reasons why it might work; he said: “OK, I’m going to stop it.”
About four weeks later, during his run to the Tiburon Challenger title, Paul had eradicated himself of the bad habit.
But other questionable choices remain. Against Bedene in Adelaide, Paul was serving at 6-4, 2-2, 30/40. His wide serve opened up the court, and Paul had a sitting forehand to get to deuce. But he tried to hit a jumping forehand and shanked it.
Paul, however, broke back the next game and advanced 6-4, 6-4. But his shot selection on that particular point was a topic of their post-match discussion.
“Just come in and take that ball normal. You probably got a 98 per cent chance of executing. Do it the way you did it you probably have a 50 per cent chance of executing,” Stine said.
Paul is working on becoming more disciplined. Injuries have been a roadblock to more consistent success, and he admits he lacked discipline as a junior and early on in his pro career.
Now, however, he goes to the gym on a regular basis to stretch and improve his flexibility with his hips and ankles – he never used to go to the gym during tournaments. He also travels with a trainer more often, spends more time with the ATP physiotherapists and spends more time warming up and cooling down.
But he won’t change everything about him. Paul still has fun with his friends and still plays basketball. “I still do all the things that people tell me not to do, just because that’s kind of my personality,” Paul said.
“But along with doing all that stuff, I spend a little bit more time on my body and make sure that I’m taking care of my body off the court.”
Stine wouldn’t have it any other way. The coach who helped Courier go from No. 25 to No. 1 and win four Grand Slam titles has learned that all players perform better on the court if they’re pleased off the court. He wants to see Paul enjoy that combination as well.
“One of the things I’ve said from the start is that I’m not trying to take the fun out of it for him; I want him to enjoy himself. I want him to have fun on the practice court, but at the same time be focused on the things that we’re trying to accomplish,” Stine said.
“He’s been really, really good about that. Off-season was phenomenal with him. I was really impressed with his work ethic and attitude coming to the court every day.”
It’s the kind of compromise and give and take that can be the hallmark of long-term relationships, on and off the court, and that’s what Paul hopes he’s starting with Stine. The 22-year-old has the end of his career – and Stine’s – in mind.
“He gets my personality pretty well, and I think he has a lot of fun working with me, and I think I have a lot of fun working with him. He gives me my freedom,” Paul said. “I hope me and him go for the rest of my career. I hope we go until the end, and I am his last project. I think that’d be a good way to end it for both of us.”