Tommy Paul is one of the most laid back players on the ATP Tour. The American describes himself as “super chill”.
But before his first-round match at the US Open, something was different about the 25-year-old. Entering the tournament with an 0-4 main draw record at his home Grand Slam, he was nervous.
“Leading into the tournament I just felt so overwhelmed. I feel like I was late for everything, I couldn’t get the timing right with transportation, getting from the city to the site. I was just always stressed,” Paul said. “My team really felt it and they sat me down and were like, ‘Dude, you need to chill out.’ Usually that’s not me. I’m super laid back and super chill with everything. [The] US Open’s always gotten the best of me.”
Paul’s coach, Brad Stine, recalled that last year before Paul’s first-round match, he did a better job of hiding his stress from his team. This year, Paul and Stine were able to recognise the jitters.
“He was very aware last year that he was 0-4 going into the match against [Roberto] Carballes Baena and last year he played absolutely horrible in that match, probably the worst match he played the entire year,” Stine said. “He was nervous again going in here. He and I both did a much better job recognising he was nervous again this year.
“This year we definitely did a better job, both of us, him admitting that he was feeling a bit stressed and me recognising the signs of that, so we addressed it more this year.”
Even still, the nerves almost cost Paul again at Flushing Meadows. Facing Spaniard Bernabe Zapata Miralles, who arrived in New York with three tour-level wins on hard courts to his name, the 29th seed found himself in deep trouble down two sets to one.
“I didn’t feel good anywhere in my first round. I’ve cramped one time in my entire life and that match, my hand wouldn’t open. I was cramping in my hammy, it was just all nerves,” Paul said. “A lot of people when they cramp it comes from nerves. That’s what it was for me. I was so nervous.”
That was because Paul was putting pressure on himself. He was hungry to earn his first US Open main draw win, and was well-positioned to earn it. The American has enjoyed the best season of his career, climbing to a career-high No. 31 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings earlier this month.
“I was putting so much pressure on myself. It gets in your head, you know. You hear a lot from the outside and I’ve played a lot of matches here and had a lot of letdown here,” Paul said. “Obviously it’s the home Slam, you want to do well here. Every year I’ve come here I wanted to do well and it’s just been like first-round exit, first-round exit, first-round exit.”
Paul found a way to defeat Zapata Miralles, which served as a massive sigh of relief. “I feel like a completely different person here,” Paul said.
He added: “It was crazy how much more free I felt after that. Everything just felt easier, from going to breakfast to coming to the site, I just wasn’t as stressed. That’s always a good thing. You know you don’t want to be stressed before a match.”
Nervous Tommy Paul turned into the usual Tommy Paul, “loosey-goosey”, as Stine has described him.
“[The first-round win] obviously relieved a lot of the tension and stress going into the match with Korda,” Stine said.
The 25-year-old entered his second-round clash against 2021 Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals runner-up Sebastian Korda far more relaxed and played much better tennis, eliminating him in five sets. It was his first ATP Head2Head win in four tries against Korda. After the match, Paul was back in a joking mood.
“Cilic got me like three times or something last year, Korda got me three times last year and Bautista got me three times. For me, if you lose three in a row to someone, they’re like automatically your daddy,” Paul said. “Three in a row is like daddy status, so I had to get out of daddy status from Korda and Cilic. Now we’re just competitive. But Bautista is still my daddy!”
A relaxed Paul is a dangerous player. One of the quickest players on Tour with a heavy forehand, the American is capable of competing against the world’s best. Paul will try to do just that on Friday against fifth seed Casper Ruud, who leads their ATP Head2Head series 2-1.
Most importantly, the pressure is off, and Paul can go back to having fun and enjoying showing the world his game.
“I think it shows. Every US Open I try and come here and I get super nervous and I don’t act like myself and I try to be laser focussed and not me and it never works,” Paul said. “I don’t know. I like to think I’m a pretty relaxed person during tournaments or outside of tournaments. That’s when I play my best tennis.”