Are You Not Entertained? Tommy Paul Is
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 7 March, and updated to remove references to the BNP Paribas Open, which will not be held as scheduled due to coronavirus concerns.
Tommy Paul’s parents introduced him to tennis at seven. He’d train on clay, with no hard courts available at the club where he played. But something that stuck with him during his junior years had nothing to do with his own tennis.
“I felt like there were a lot of kids my age when I was younger who were playing the same tournaments and practising at the same places as me that just felt like they were miserable when they were practising,” Paul told ATPTour.com. “I took pride in not feeling miserable on court. If I ever felt like I didn’t want to be there, [I would] just kind of mess around and have a little bit more fun with myself on the court. That’s always been my personality.”
The American, who will be making his first main draw appearance at the BNP Paribas Open next week, simply wants to enjoy his time on the tennis court. Once in a while Paul will get upset with a poor decision or shot, but more often he’ll crack a refreshing smile, even in a match’s tightest moments.
“I want people to have fun watching me. I want them to see me having fun and I want them to enjoy watching it. I don’t want to be a boring guy out on the court,” Paul said. “Sometimes I’m a little too quiet and sometimes I get a little too angry, but for the most part I like to have fun and entertain the crowd.”
Paul has plenty of reasons to smile these days. Following last year’s US Open, he cracked the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time. Six months later, he’s up to a career-best World No. 57, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
“It’s about putting matches together. To really move up in the rankings, it is not [about] winning one or two matches in a row. You’ve got to have good weeks. You’ve got to play great for full weeks at a time and have multiple of those,” Paul said. “That’s my biggest focus this year, putting together full weeks of really good tennis.”
Mission accomplished thus far. Paul qualified for the Adelaide International in January, advancing to his first ATP Tour semi-final at that ATP 250. At the Australian Open, he beat 2017 Nitto ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov. Most recently, the American earned his first Top 10 win against 2018 Nitto ATP Finals titlist Alexander Zverev at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel presentado por HSBC en route to the quarter-finals.
“[I just have to] continue to do the right things, try to stick with the same routines as I had at the end of last year and through the beginning of this year,” Paul said. “I’m still the same person, still having fun. Just trying to make better decisions.”
Paul has been open about the struggles he faced early on during his ATP Tour career. He won the 2015 Roland Garros boys’ singles crown and reached that year’s US Open boys’ singles final, but it took him more than four years after that to break into the Top 100. He has admitted to not fully taking care of his body.
But now he spends more time at the gym and with the physios, and that is reflected in his results. Towards the end of last season, Paul also began working with a new coach, Brad Stine, whom has mentored former World No. 1 Jim Courier and two-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson. In a way, Paul now has taken on more responsibility, which has only helped.
“I just feel like everything’s more comfortable for me and a lot less stress,” Paul said. “It’s cool. It’s different kind of coaching than I’ve been used to. He actually lives out in California, I live in South Florida. I fly him out to do practice weeks in Florida and he comes to all the tournaments with me. It’s different. I have to do a lot more stuff on my own, setting up practices on my own sometimes when he’s not there in South Florida. Kind of just taking more initiative.”
Stine is not trying to reinvent Paul. Instead he is refining the 22-year-old, giving him the tools necessary to enjoy maximum success.
“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 focussed on the things that we're trying to accomplish,” Stine told ATPTour.com. “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.”
Paul has plenty of weapons to go with that. The 6’1” right-hander has a heavy forehand that he uses to find acute angles on the court and play aggressive baseline tennis. He is also extremely quick, which allows him to stay in points defensively. But perhaps most importantly, Paul embraces the big moments.
The American was struggling physically against Dimitrov late in their Melbourne clash. Paul let slip a two-set lead, and the Bulgarian served for the match in the fifth set and held a 30/0 lead. But Paul put a smile on his face and battled until the end, ultimately triumphing.
“I always felt like in juniors you kind of just love the battle. Some people thrive in those situations and I can’t think of a better situation to have fun on a tennis court than going five sets at the Australian Open,” Paul said. “That’s where everyone wants to be. If you’re not enjoying that, you shouldn’t be playing tennis.”