Don’t Sleep on Tommy Paul

Photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It’s not that shirtless pictures of Tommy Paul standing next to a tractor on his mother’s New Jersey farm don’t exist. It’s just that, contrary to the implications of an article that appeared on the ATP’s website during his career-best run at this year’s Wimbledon, he knows nothing about farming beyond what he’s seen on Yellowstone. When he does make it home to visit, his mom and stepdad are always busy tending to the animals — horses, sheep, chickens — and Paul can’t help but chip in. “I’m not gonna just, like, sit inside and do nothing,” he said. He speaks with a slight southern twang, which doesn’t jibe with New Jersey but does lend itself to the imaginary pastoral version of his life. “I obviously don’t know anything, but I get out there and try to help anyway. It’s fun. It’s a nice change-up, you know?”

Paul’s work schedule leaves little room for spontaneity. He is the fourth-ranked American tennis player on the ATP Tour and the 33rd in the world overall. In practical terms, maintaining that kind of status translates to about two weeks of racquetless vacation per year and 11.5 months of travel, practice, and competition. Paul has been grinding away like this for seven years. It may be hard to muster sympathy for a top-tier professional athlete, but while tennis, the game, is fast, hard, and entrancing, tennis, the life, — stripped of late-night television appearances and $20 million endorsement deals available to a rarefied few — is often monotonous and lonely. Then there’s the pain. Paul said he doesn’t know anyone who ends the year with their body feeling great; no matter how fresh the spring in someone’s step might appear on court during a match, “everyone is always dealing with something. There’s always one nagging thing they have to play with.”

Recently, though, the grinding has been paying dividends. His improvement, particularly mentally, was evident on the first day of the U.S. Open on Monday, when Paul, seeded 29th, battled Spain’s Bernabé Zapata Miralles in five sets amid oppressive humidity. Down two sets to one, Paul stormed back, taking the fourth set 6-0 and staying focused enough in the fifth to stave off a tiebreak. The match felt like one Paul might have dropped a few years ago.

Most Americans grow up playing on hard courts, but Paul crafted his game on clay courts in his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, before moving to Florida for more intensive training. In 2015, he won a Grand Slam juniors’ title at the French Open boys’ tournament (on clay, suitably), defeating his friend Taylor Fritz for the silver platter-shaped trophy. It was the first time in the tournament’s long history that two American junior boys met in the final. Paul quickly turned pro, and sports media, starved for an American men’s star long after the days of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, began hyping him as one to watch.  

When he’s on, Paul dazzles with lightning-quick speed and a punishing baseline game. But he was almost immediately beset by elbow and knee issues early in his pro career, which contributed to years of erratic results. The narrative in the tennis world was that he was undisciplined, and Paul himself has said in past interviews there were some things he would have done differently. Paul competed mostly on the ATP Challenger Tour (smaller tournaments, smaller venues) in 2016 and part of 2017, and he made it to only three major tournaments before 2020, losing in the first round every time. The hype subsided. Fritz and another American buddy, Reilly Opelka, both of whom Paul had roomed with at the USTA training center, found some mainstream success more quickly, locking in a couple ATP title wins years ahead of him. Paul’s name was lumped in with a lengthy list of other young Americans who had been highly touted but failed to live up to expectations amid an unprecedented drought of success for U.S. men. (Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick is the last American man to win a major back in 2003; he retired in 2012.)

When Paul began working with his coach, Brad Stine, in 2019, he was No. 114 in the world. The new team — doctors, physios, trainers — homed in on further injury prevention and getting his overall fitness level up to snuff. Stine leaned into Paul’s aggressive court style and put his offense skills to better use. Paul did the work. The results weren’t instant, but the progress was steady. Momentum started to pick up in November, when he won his first ATP title at the Stockholm Open. Paul hadn’t even qualified for the main draw, but it was the end of the season, and a number of other players (some injured, some just exhausted) pulled out. Paul beat Fritz and another once-heralded American talent, Frances Tiafoe, on his way to the final. He also knocked out three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray before his finals victory over Canada’s Denis Shapovalov. The win gave him a confidence boost that has extended into 2022, when he has defeated a couple more heavy hitters, including world No. 3 Alexander Zverev at Indian Wells and Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, the second coming of Rafael Nadal, at the Canadian Open.

By July, Paul had earned a seed at Wimbledon — only the second time he had done so at a major — and made it through to the fourth round. He arrived in New York last week for the U.S. Open, where he had made his Grand Slam debut in 2015, feeling happy and ready. “I love it here. I love this tournament,” he said.

Paul is now a key member of a sizable American contingent in the top 50, of which there are seven in total. That list includes the durable but limited veteran John Isner and a wealth of rising 20-something talents: Jenson Brooksby, Maxime Cressy, Brandon Nakashima, and Paul’s next opponent at the Open, Sebastian Korda. There’s not an obvious new Sampras in the mix (yet), but there is hope that one or two of these guys might soon vie for a Slam as the stranglehold of tennis’s Djokovic-Nadal duopoly inevitably eases. (It has to at some point, right?)

If the pressure of revived expectations is getting to Paul, it’s hard to tell. Off court, he lives at Opelka’s house in south Florida, and the two maintain a laid-back demeanor shared by Fritz. Like Naomi Osaka on the women’s side, they tend to eschew traditional presser platitudes — and, in the case of Opelka, opt for occasional trolling. Fritz is included in an upcoming Netflix docuseries about their sport, and Paul jokes that he and Opelka would be “in way too much trouble” if their lives were documented. (He did not elaborate.)

Fritz vaulted to stardom over the past year with a win at Indian Wells and a deep run at Wimbledon, and Opelka has been making noise at majors, too. But Paul has already outlasted both at this year’s Open. Opelka withdrew before the tournament; Fritz lost in a shocker Monday night to a qualifier who happens to be the son of former women’s-tennis star Tracy Austin. Of the match, Fritz said bluntly, “I feel like an idiot for feeling like I could win the U.S. Open.”

After Monday’s first round concluded, a swarm of kids rushed Paul to get him to sign their tennis balls. He was beet red and soaking wet. He signed the balls anyway. Wajid Syed, Paul’s manager, who has known him since he was 15, said Paul was “pretty casual” about his hard-fought win and was soon chatting about other things. Later, Paul took an ice bath and ordered tacos for the group to his hotel room. Round two awaits Wednesday.

Don’t Sleep on Tommy Paul