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Tommy Paul Is Finally Having the Tournament of His Life

Sports Illustrated 1/26/2023 Chris Almeida,Jon Wertheim
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But will his Australian Open run come to an end in the semifinals against Novak Djokovic?

Jon Wertheim:  Before the tournament, on Melbourne sports talk radio, a host was going through the men's top 50, trying to tick every name off from memory. And the one name that he missed was Tommy Paul. Which is sort of symbolic of Paul's career. He was a great junior player but didn't have quite the resume of Taylor Fritz, the backstory of Francis Tiafoe or the conspicuous size of Reilly Opelka. Paul has always sort of fallen through the cracks. But no more! For the second-straight major, there is an American man in the semifinals and this time it's Tommy Paul who, at age 25, is rounding into form.

After a deceptively solid win over Roberto Bautista Agut, Paul beat another American, Ben Shelton, in the quarterfinals, and is now going to turn in the best result of his career. He now gets a date with Novak Djokovic.

Chris Almeida: Tough one.

JW: Yeah. He'll be the overwhelming underdog, but in a way he's OK with that role. Paul was something of a late bloomer in the juniors before winning the French Open. That was for a variety of reasons, not least his maturity issues which he's very open about. It took a few years for his pro career to gain traction. But in his mid 20s, he's really come into his game. He's very athletic. He's got to be on the shortlist of the most athletic players on tour. He does nothing spectacularly but everything capably. He can play offense, he can play defense. He's very quick, but he also isn't going to get hit off the court. And there's a real maturity that took a few years to develop but now is part of his game. The fact that he's winning best of five matches speaks to that.

All that said, he now has what is emerging as the biggest challenge in tennis which is beating Novak Djokovic and invested five match in the Southern Hemisphere. After initial concerns about his hamstring injury, Djokovic just played some of the best tennis of his career. He's been just unplayable against top opponents. Tommy Paul beat Nadal within the last few months, and he'll take some confidence from that, but he'll have to really come up with something against Djokovic, starting with having the best serving day of his life. Djokovic has never lost in an Australian Open semifinal and at age 35 is playing some of the most elevated tennis of his career.

CA: Good for Tommy Paul. Again, like we said with Andy Murray last week: I don't love his chances! But it's still fun that he's here. The most that I'd heard about Paul, however many years ago, was just from high-level juniors that I knew personally who said Oh, keep an eye on this guy. He's good. But that seemed to be more or less it. He was a good junior player, but not the type of guy destined to come on the tour and immediately make himself known.

And, well, that was the right read. He struggled to get his bearings as a pro. For a few years, he was just fighting to get into the main draws at the majors. He didn't string three wins together at a slam until last year. But you see a positive trend here. He made the fourth round at Wimbledon last year. Then he reached the third round of the U.S. Open, where he lost to Casper Ruud, an eventual finalist obviously, in five sets. He's clearly finding his feet.

I think that he's emblematic of an interesting phenomenon in tennis in more recent years. At 25, now, you can be an emerging player. Bjorn Borg was done by 25. Roger Federer was easily established as the best player in the world at 25. But today, we're  talking about Fritz and Tiafoe and all these American players in their mid 20s as up-and-comers. I remember I wrote a story a while back about this, and I got an angry reader email saying I can't believe you didn't mention the young American Taylor Fritz! And that was seven years ago! So this has been quite the gestation period for this generation.

But anyway, getting back to the task at hand. Paul's got to serve very well because he's, you know, playing the best returner in history. He's playing a guy who's won this tournament nine times and just looks absolutely invincible. Good luck, I guess!

Does this mean anything for American men's tennis? I know I'm supposed to say yes, but I don't really think so. As cool as it was to see Seb Korda and the young and promising Ben Shelton and all these guys make it to the second week, I don't think most people thought they had realistic shots to win the tournament. I mean, if we're being honest, I don't think anybody had a shot to win the tournament except for... the one guy who we knew was going to win the tournament.

JW: Yeah, I mean, this is kind of the this is sort of the apotheosis of the culmination of this American success. We have one American in the semis, we have 10 Americans men in the top 50. The question is kind of is, is there a major champ in there? It's a great sign for the USTA, the fact that so many of these guys are under 30 and some went to college, and some are tall, and some are not. It's a nice variety. But who's going to win the big one?

CA: If you're asking if the U.S. has produced its Alcaraz, I think that the answer is still definitely no.

JW: It is kind of an interesting question: would you rather have a lot of second-round picks or one Alcaraz?

CA: Right. It sort of reminds me of France in the late aughts and early 2010s. They had five or six of these guys hanging around the top 20, always in the second weeks of majors. But you just never felt they were really going to contend. I think out of that group, only Jo-Wilfried Tsonga got to a major final...and who did he lose to down in Australia 15 years ago? Well, look at that! But I shouldn't get too down on this result. It's certainly better than nothing.

JW: The irony, too, is that the two highest-ranked American men, Fritz and Tiafoe, the two top-16 seeds, both lost before they should have.

CA: I guess they spent too much time with those Netflix cameras.

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