The last time Tommy Paul needed a change of attitude, he had just crashed out of a small tournament in the Netherlands in the spring of 2022 and his coach had seen enough.
Brad Stine, who has guided Jim Courier to four Grand Slam singles titles and to the top of the world and has coached several other top players over the past 20 years, is 64 years old and knows when a player crosses the line between fighting through a difficult phase and getting through it passed a difficult phase behaved unprofessionally.
For several weeks, he had observed Paul acting like a child and not like a man in his 20s. During an opening game in Geneva in May, Paul had mocked someone sitting in the players' box of his opponent Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands. Paul thought the man was cheering too loudly. Another time, at the grass court in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he had disrespected Brandon Nakashima, a fellow American, shouting that he shouldn't have lost to a player when he thought he was much better.
Stine's kids are grown and his bills are paid. He was at the pinnacle of tennis. He doesn't need the work. He had to tell Paul exactly what he believed, and if their three-year relationship as player and coach ended there, so be it.
“You're embarrassing me,” Stine said to Paul as they chatted in a quiet spot in the tournament after the loss to Nakashima. He then rattled off his complaints about Paul's attitude and competitiveness over the previous month.
Paul took in Stine's words for a moment before speaking, then told Stine that he didn't disagree with anything he had said.
Of America's best men, Frances Tiafoe, a 25-year-old son of Sierra Leoneans whose semifinals at last year's US Open was electrifying, sucks the most oxygen these days. Taylor Fritz, the 25-year-old Californian, has the highest placing in the group and last year won the BNP Paribas Open, the so-called fifth Slam. Sebastian Korda, the son of a Grand Slam singles winner, has the pedigree.
But 26-year-old Paul, who has a dangerous all-court style of play and likes a fishing rod and reel in his hands as much as (ok, maybe more than) a tennis racquet, had arguably the best season of them all.
He is the only American to have reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament, losing to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, which Djokovic won for the tenth time. Paul's rankings shot up this month from January's 35th to 13th. He has thrown world no Suburbs of Cincinnati lost to him in three close sets.
The rewards, including nearly $2 million in prize money, have arrived. His agents at GSE Worldwide have secured Paul new endorsement deals with Yonex, a racquet manufacturer; De Bethune, the maker of his luxury watch; Motorola; IBM; Acorns, a financial management company; and Celsius, a beverage maker. He appeared in one Fashion photo series in Vanity Fairhis hair was combed down and his body was wrapped in a shining cloak.
“Not really my thing,” said Paul, who goes more with a trucker hat and hoodie than haute couture.
That's how it was to go for Paul, who was almost always the best in his age group among young American players. He won the junior title at the French Open in 2015. But then followed a frustrating climb up the tennis ladder, years during which Paul's desire and dedication to his craft couldn't match the talent he'd displayed even as a young boy, and he learned the hard way that talent only gets a player.
“He was the big fish in the small pond, and then he went out there and realized these other players are better and work harder too,” said his mother and first coach, Jill MacMillan of Paul's first-round win in four sets Italian Stefano Travaglia on the sidelines. She and her husband live on a small farm in South Jersey, with two horses, eight sheep and various other animals.
Discussing his trip later that evening, Paul was philosophical.
“I don't think I've ever really stopped believing,” he said. “I kind of knew I could do it. I just didn't really know how to do it.”
Or if he really wanted it.
Raised in Greenville, North Carolina, where his mother and her ex-husband owned and operated a gym with a few tennis courts, Paul received his first tennis racquet from an older woman whom Paul and his siblings called Grandma Betty — she wasn't their grandmother — when he was about 5 years old, he believes. He immediately went outside and started banging it against a tree. She followed him out and told him not to use it like that.
Paul and his older sister spent every afternoon playing tennis at the gym. His earliest goal was to beat his sister, who later played college tennis. MacMillan said that when Paul started playing – and winning – tournaments at the age of 6, he barely knew the rules or how to count points. “He just loved hitting the ball.”
That love never faded, although Paul played a lot of baseball and basketball before turning his attention exclusively to tennis around the age of 13. Then tennis got serious and a little weird.
He has vivid memories of parents hitting their children for losing tournaments. His parents couldn't afford intensive private training, so Paul spent much of his time training at the United States Tennis Association's training facility in Florida. There were a lot of rules and a lot of coaches were telling Paul what to do, like limiting his time with friends and family. Sometimes he would listen, follow the rules and practice hard. Sometimes he didn't. He still won a lot, so there wasn't a big impact.
He planned to attend the University of Georgia. But then he started winning lower-level professional tournaments and took the junior title at the French Open. So instead of going to college, he went pro.
Big mistake. No agent wanted to represent him because of his reputation as a player with questionable commitment, Paul said. For the next two years he was miserable. That misery boiled over at the 2017 US Open when the aftermath of a forgiving night after a first-round singles defeat resulted in a 6-0, 6-0 loss in doubles. A dispute ensued with the USTA over the next few months, ultimately causing it to lose support.
“It was a different life,” Paul said last week while sitting on a couch in a home in Southampton, Long Island, where he was the guest of the chairman of GSE, his agency.
Paul said losing USTA support was the best thing that could have happened to him. Eventually, he had to take responsibility for his future in tennis and hire his own coach and coach. He stopped moving in the gym and on the exercise site.
“I didn't want to waste my investment,” he said.
The biggest problem came in 2019 when, after losing in the US Open qualifier, he asked Stine, whose main player was struggling with injuries, to rate his game.
Watching Paul play, Stine couldn't understand how such a talented athlete could get off balance so often on the court. He gave him a list of 11 things he needed to fix, from improving his footwork to developing a slice. He shared his “conversion theory” that all it takes to completely change the dynamic of a game regardless of the outcome is gaining three points in a row.
“Do the math,” Stine said. He's not wrong.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Paul and his countrymen were spending much of their time in Southern California, playing at the mansions of tennis enthusiasts in the Los Angeles area. He was still getting used to feeling like he belonged.
Eight days before the US Open, Paul was fishing for tuna off Long Island. His face lights up as he talks about the hour-long struggle to land a 350-pounder too big to keep. He hasn't bought his own boat yet, but he's already paid the prizes. The next day he was on the court of another seaside villa practicing for two hours with Diego Schwartzman from Argentina.
“I want him to keep having fun,” Stine later said at the villa they called home the week before the tournament.
Was Paul having fun? His gaze wandered to the expansive lawn, pool, and tennis court in the backyard.
“Look where we are,” he said.