Sports | August 29, 2022 6:21 am

After a Breakout Year, American Tommy Paul Is Ready for the US Open Spotlight

The 25-year-old has collected four victories against Top-10 opponents over the last 10 months. Now, he’s hoping to make a name for himself in New York.

Tommy Paul of the United States celebrates winning a point.
Tommy Paul climbed to a No. 31 ranking (the highest in his career) last week.
Mike Lawrence/ISI Photos/Getty

A couple of weeks ago in the first set of his second-round match in Montreal, Tommy Paul raised his fist while Carlos Alcaraz slid to the ground. In front of a healthy crowd at the National Bank Open, the American held serve at deuce and outlasted the fourth-ranked player in the world with an acrobatic volley around the net, swapping forehands and backhands with implausible agility. Though just one point, the dexterous exchange quickly proved Paul wasn’t going to fold against the favorite from Spain. “It was just electric from the beginning. We played some really good points right out the gate,” Paul tells InsideHook. “When I play a higher-level player, I raise my level to theirs, and I can play at just about any level of tennis.”

After saving a couple of match points in the second set, Paul would eventually battle back and shock the Canadian crowd, beating Alcaraz and earning his fourth victory over a Top-10 opponent in the last 10 months. The momentum carried him to the tournament’s quarterfinal, an impressive run in what has been a breakout year for the 25-year-old from Greenville, North Carolina. Since winning his first ATP title in Stockholm last November, Paul has bulked up his resume and found more consistency; he earned a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon in July and climbed to a No. 31 ranking (the highest in his career) after a second-round exit at the Western and Southern Open last week. 

Under coach Brad Stine’s tutelage, Paul has only enhanced his incessant knack for returning would-be winners, extending points at the net and annoying opponents with his never-die approach. That was evident throughout his match with Alcaraz, and in the following week against familiar opponent Denis Shapovalov, who slammed and broke his racket after Paul outwitted him on a second-set point. “Lately I’ve been playing way more aggressive tennis, but to be able to use athleticism to stay in points that some might not be able to stay in, I think that frustrates people,” he says. “Any time I can use that to my advantage, I try to.” 

Chatting poolside over Zoom after a workout in Delray Beach, Florida, where he’s been living with best friend and fellow tennis star Reilly Opelka, Paul is eager to continue this summer’s momentum and take another crucial career step under the U.S. Open spotlight. Though he’s yet to find sustained success like American peers and Top-25 players Taylor Fritz and Francis Tiafoe, he’s motivated to play his best tennis in front of the raucous New York crowds when it matters most. “Every week I’m playing, I’m focused on that week,” he says of the last month of tournaments. “But in the back of your head, you’re thinking this is just a stepping stone to the U.S. Open. I want to peak there.” 

Tommy Paul of the U.S. returns a ball to Jannik Sinner of Italy.
Paul is eager to continue his forward momentum under the U.S. Open spotlight.
Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty

Paul’s journey into professional tennis began at 13 years old in Boca Raton, Florida, where he competed on the ITF Juniors Circuit. While living and training at the USTA Center, he made friends with Opelka and Fritz and the tight-knit trio began sharing extracurricular hobbies and causing typical teenage trouble as roommates. “There were obviously curfews and security cameras around the place, but we were pretty rebellious, we would try and do anything we could to break the rules,” Paul laughs. “We all got really close because there’s not much to do but hang out with each other and crack jokes.” 

At 16, the three set their sights on playing in college (Paul had planned to attend the University of Georgia), but over the next two years, Paul won the 2015 Junior French Open title, Opelka won the 2015 Junior Wimbledon title, and Fritz had become the No. 1 junior player in the world, convincing them to turn pro. Despite their differing early trajectories and successes (Fritz was the first to be ranked in the ATP Top-100), Paul remembers everyone, including Tiafoe, being “super supportive” as they competed against each other. “We’re all pushing each other and we all want the best for each other, and I think it’s a special group of guys,” Paul says. “We’re not taking it in a salty way.”

Those close bonds have remained throughout the grueling ATP schedule, and in their free time, Paul and Opelka grab dinner in Miami on weekends and enjoy taking boats off the coast. But over the last couple of years, Paul has dedicated more time to tennis, watching matches on his own and keeping tabs on his prospective opponents, a discipline that Opelka (who withdrew from the U.S. Open due to injury) believes Paul needed to develop with his massive talent. “He has gotten stronger and has taken the natural athleticism he has to another level,” Opelka told ATPTour. “His natural tennis ability is off the charts. It just took him a bit of time.”

The turnaround started at Indian Wells last November where Paul defeated No. 5 Andrey Rublev and then, four months later, took down No. 3 Alexander Zverev at the same tournament. With just a few grass court matches to his name, Paul entered the Wimbledon main draw in June for the first time in his career and didn’t drop a set in his first three matches. “The way that my game style has been developing over the past year, it kind of matches up with grass court tennis well,” Paul says. “I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago—I thought I was much more of a clay-court player. But the way I’m playing now, it’s a much faster game and I feel like I’m moving a lot more fluidly.”

Tommy Paul plays a backhand shot against Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland.
“When I play a higher-level player, I raise my level to theirs,” Paul says.
Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Beyond his own internal motivation, Paul admits that the younger crop of American stars — Jenson Brooksby, Brandon Nakashima and Sebasian Korda, who have all cracked the Top 50 at least once under the age of 22 — has pressured Paul and his peers to compete at a higher level. As a matter of pride, “we want to stay ahead of them in the rankings, we don’t want to get passed up,” Paul says. “I can speak for the whole group when I say that the younger guys doing really well has pushed us a ton.” Still, Paul is looking at his goals through a short-term lens. “I want to break the top-30, that’s my goal right now,” he says. “I want to be in the second week at [grand] slams and make deeper runs in these Masters 1000 [tournaments].”

As he looks to jump into the consciousness of the casual tennis fan this week, he’ll have the support of his mother and stepfather — taking a break from their Lumberton, New Jersey farm, which Paul helped tend briefly in July — in his player’s box. Most importantly for Paul, he’ll have an audience of tennis fans that he’s noticed has become more invested in American tennis and its most promising players in recent years. “Sometimes you can get a little salty if you’re at your home slam and you’re playing someone from Spain and they’re all cheering for him. It’s like, What’s going on?” Paul says. “But I’m super excited. I’ll play in front of nobody right now, as long as it’s in the U.S. Open.”