Tommy Paul has been one of the breakthrough stars of 2023. The American has clawed to the Australian Open semi-finals and the championship match in Acapulco, putting himself in sixth place in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Turin ahead of the Miami Open presented by Itau.
Brad Stine, who has coached Paul since 2020, spoke to ATPTour.com about his charge’s progress, how they reshaped his game, what it will take to continue his ascent and more.
Last year you said one of the big things you were working on with Tommy was trying to get him to move forward a little bit more. How happy are you with his progress?
I think after Tommy’s first match here, he was interviewed on court and he was asked what he and I might be working on right now and he said, ‘Well, I’ll just tell you that I never come to the net enough for Brad. No matter how much I come in, he would always prefer if I would come in more.’ I jokingly say every single match Tommy plays he could have come in more than what he probably came in. So I think it continues to be a work in progress.
That being said, I think Tommy’s identity as a player has developed into what I would describe, I think a lot of guys on Tour would describe, as an aggressive all-court player. I don’t know that I would describe him as or that he would be described as an attacking player. But he’s an all-court player that can mix in serving and volleying, that can attack off the ground and come forward and finish at the net. He does that enough to keep his opponents off balance and not comfortable.
If they’re giving up any kind of short balls or anything that he can attack, then he’s going to put pressure on them coming forward. He can keep them off balance on his serve. Even against some of the best returners, he can keep them off balance with some serving and volleying. All that stuff I think has definitely improved and become kind of a staple of his game. He’s not Maxime Cressy. I wouldn’t expect him to be Maxime Cressy. But he’s coming forward a fair amount for sure.
How much time did it take when you started with him for him to start buying into that idea?
Since I started with Tommy, there have been different phases and progressions that we’ve gone through and we didn’t really get to a major focus on that until probably midway through our second year together and then we started focusing a little bit more on the volley. I always think that trying to get someone to become more of an attacking-style player is a backwards progression.
You have to help them with the volley and get them to be a good volleyer. Hopefully, potentially, a great volleyer before you can ask them to start transitioning, attacking and coming forward. If you do it the other way around and they come in and they don’t have very much success because they’re not as comfortable with the volley itself and they’re losing a lot of points, then they’re probably not going to want to continue to come forward.
We spent quite a bit of time just focused on him working on volleys. That alone, him getting more comfortable with the volley, the feel of the volley, where he’s supposed to be in the court. Those kind of things translated to him coming in more. Then we started talking more about transitioning, options and plays that he can make to come forward and try to get in. It took a while I would say to get to the point. I wouldn’t say that either of us is necessarily completely satisfied with where he’s at. He can still do a better job with some of his transition plays. He can still do a better job sometimes with the volleys and or his positioning and stuff like that. There’s always room for improvement.
When Tommy’s been having the results he’s been having lately, how much does that help you with his buy-in?
It’s obviously in his mind! We at least know that he’s aware of it or maybe he’s at least listening to something I’m saying. At the level that these guys are competing at and playing against the best players in the world, you go through periods where it can be very difficult to create opportunities to come forward, especially from the backcourt.
Off of groundstrokes guys hit the ball so big nowadays and with so much depth and penetration and weight on the ball with the racquet materials and the strings and everything, that sometimes it’s hard to get a ball to attack, so that becomes very difficult. That being said, you can always serve and volley and you can always attack second serves. So that’s become a staple of Tommy’s game and I think everyone is aware of that. The crush and rush.
In the olden days we used to talk about chip and charge, but guys with very good two-handed returns off both sides, you can take the ball very early and take the ball up the line on the deuce side or go cross or up the line off the ad side and come in behind those balls. Tommy’s been very, very, very good and very successful on that with a lot of guys, especially on faster hard courts, grass or indoors. Those plays are really effective plays.
With the coaching trial, do you like having the ability now to have mini conversations with him during matches?
I like it. I personally like it. I think there are interesting dynamics to it. I think that there’s been a lot less coaching than I think people would have expected. Overall, I think that for us personally, just for us individually, Tommy and I, it took us a little bit of time, at least two or three matches when we first started doing it, to get it into a comfortable rhythm.
Tommy the first couple times when he had it available to him, because I was openly able to communicate with him, he was using the box a little bit more in a way to kind of vent his frustrations, which he didn’t normally do. But it was like, ‘Oh, that’s open now? I can go there?’ We actually had to have a conversation like, ‘That’s not the purpose of it.’ You still need to maintain your calm and concentration on the court.
One of the things we talked about is Tommy needs to maintain more of his eye focus within the lines of the court like he normally would when you weren’t allowed to coach. He can maintain that and still hear me. As long as he’s hearing my voice and hearing what I’m saying to him, that’s fine.
Tommy’s made deep runs lately and his Pepperstone ATP Ranking is getting up there. What will it take to make the next step to a Grand Slam final, the Top 10, or whatever that might be? Is it incremental improvements on what you’ve been working on or something different?
It’s always small steps. I think since we’ve started, Tommy’s made very consistent progress. Obviously people see Australia where he made a semi. They think that’s kind of like oh Tommy Paul had a major breakthrough and all this stuff, but for me it wasn’t really a major breakthrough.
Last year I think he made eight or nine quarter-finals, fourth round at Wimbledon, he made quarters for the first time at a Masters 1000. The year before that he won his first title. He hasn’t won a title again — to me that’s a little bit disappointing. I think that’s another big incremental step for him, whether it’s a 250 or 500, I’d like to see him go deep in one of these [Masters 1000 events]. To realistically have a chance to keep going deep consistently at the Slams, maybe have a chance to make a final or something like that, you need to be in the position that he was in Australia, playing someone like Novak in the semis.
Getting through the matches like beating Taylor in the semis in Acapulco is a perfect training ground for him to prepare for those kinds of matches at the Grand Slam level. You need to put yourself in that position more and more and more and more often so that you’re playing those guys. That’s one of the goals. In order to do that, you’ve got to go deep consistently.
Last year he was doing that, he played a lot of top guys because he was making at least quarter-finals. Hopefully he can take another step or two farther this year, which we have already. Last year it was like a running joke with us at a point after you’ve gotten to like three quarters, four quarters, five quarters, you’re like okay quarters is our deal, we’re not making it farther than quarters.
I actually said to him after he made the quarters, I think he beat Rafa in Paris to make the quarters. I don’t even remember who he played in the quarters, I remember he beat Rafa in the Round of 16. I came into the warmup area afterwards and I was like, ‘Dude, should I just book our flights for tomorrow? Because you know we’re not going past the quarter-finals.’ He was laughing, but then he loses in the quarter-finals and we’re like ‘Geez’. We were joking, ‘This is going to be the year of the semi-finals’ and then he made the semis in Australia and then in Acapulco I actually said to him, ‘You know what, let’s make it semis or better, not just semis.’
But it’s been a good start to the year, that’s for sure. We’ll see where it goes.