It’s no secret that the competitive culture of American men’s tennis is off the charts at the moment. With no less than 10 players inside the Top 50, and three in the Top 20, there are plenty of low key rivalries mixed in with all the support and camaraderie.
Defending BNP Paribas Open champion Taylor Fritz – he of the Top 5 ranking – has outperformed his peers and garnered the lion’s share of attention from the media because of it, but as the saying goes: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
19th-ranked Tommy Paul said it best last week when asked to give his thoughts on the leadership and inspiration that Fritz has provided the rest of the Americans.
“Obviously, me, Frances [Tiafoe], Sebi [Korda], all the Americans, we want to be where he’s at and we want to take that spot from him,” Paul said. “That’s what we want. That’s where we want to be.”
Paul, a wildly talented, freakishly gifted athlete, has needed time to figure out how to make his style of play productive against the tour’s elite.
“I think it’s been slow and steady on the rise, and I think every year I’ve gotten better,” he told reporters at Indian Wells last week. “I have fixed a couple of things that I didn’t like in my game, and made a couple of things better.”
It was never a matter of having the talent for Paul – it was simply a matter of having the experience.
“I think playing a lot more big matches last year – I played, I don’t know, like 10 quarterfinal matches last year, and a few of them were Masters 1000s,” Paul said. “I mean, those are big matches, and I didn’t get through those last year but just having that experience really helps going into this year.”
That experience helped Paul reach his maiden Grand Slam semifinal in January, and it also guided him as he took down Fritz in an epic semifinal battle at Acapulco two weeks ago.
You can now see the confidence oozing out of him. Monday’s battle with ninth-seeded Hubert Hurkacz was a perfect example. Faced with adversity early, Paul calmly stuck with his game plan and pushed past the elite Pole, setting a mouthwatering clash with Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime in the round of 16.
🇺🇸 Hometown homerun 🇺🇸
Tommy Paul closes it out def. Hurkacz 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. Next up he faces the winner of Auger-Aliassime vs Cerundolo in R16. #TennisParadise | @TommyPaul1 pic.twitter.com/8Z5iI60Evk
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 13, 2023
Most important is the fact that Paul is learning from the wins and the losses on tour, staying even-keel as he continuously works to improve his game.
“Obviously I’m pretty happy with the way I played in Australia and the result,” Paul said, before talking about the formative experience of facing Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open. “But I looked at it like, ‘All right, my last match in Australia, I got absolutely pummeled,’ and I was not happy about that match. I left Australia ultimately thinking” ‘All right, what do I need to do to win that match next time or play better in that match?'”
Part of striving for Paul is learning the art of being humble. He’s not shy about his belief in his game and his desire to rise above his rivals, in America and elsewhere. He’s also unwilling to get ahead of himself.
There is work to be done, and Tommy Paul is focused on the doing.
“I don’t want my head to get big,” he said. “I try and like not get too confident. I think overconfidence is almost worse than no confidence. I’ve been told that since a young age. It’s important to have that happy medium of being confident when you need to be confident, and being humble when you need to be humble.”