MELBOURNE, Australia — The tennis breakthroughs keep coming for Tommy Paul and his American friends.
Taylor Fritz became the first of their peer group to win a Masters 1000 title last year at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.
A few months later, Frances Tiafoe became the first of their group to reach a Grand Slam semifinal in singles, pushing eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz to five sets.
Now Paul, a smooth-moving talent who grew up near a small tennis academy run by his family in Greenville, NC, has become the first American man to reach an Australian Open singles semifinal since Andy Roddick in 2009.
For Paul, who defeated American newcomer Ben Shelton, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, all this is no coincidence.
“I think it applies a lot,” Paul said. “You see Fritz win a Masters 1000, and I think all of us are all happy for him, but we’re all like, ‘OK, he did it. We can do that.’
“And then ‘Foe makes the semifinals of the US Open and had chances in the semis, and who knows what would have happened if he had won that match? So, you see that happen, and you’re, like, ‘All right, that’s awesome. I’m happy for him, but I can do that.’”
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
Paul, 25, has taken the hint, with ample encouragement from his veteran coach Brad Stine, who began working with him in September 2019 when Paul was outside the top 100 and had recently lost funding and coaching support from the United States Tennis Association and was denied a wild card at the 2019 US Open.
“That was based on some disciplinary things,” Stine said.
But Stine was impressed by Paul’s openness to coaching and change — and his ability to handle world-class pace from the baseline — and although there have been some setbacks and lots of text messages, Stine feels Paul’s game is maturing and his commitment growing.
“We went from him identifying himself as a counterpuncher,” said Stine, “to being a guy that’s looking for forehands and trying to dictate and dominate the court with the forehand, which was a big change because Tommy’s backhand had always been the more solid side of his game.”
Stine has already helped a young American succeed down under.
He was part of Jim Courier’s coaching team in 1992 and 1993 when Courier won back-to-back Australian Open singles titles and jumped into the Yarra River with Stine to celebrate.
“He’s done so much for my game,” Paul said of Stine. “In the past four years, he’s really taken me up many, many levels. I’m really appreciative, and hopefully we can keep going. I’m going to make him jump in the Yarra if we win this thing. I’m not going, but I’m going to make him do it.”
That swim, perhaps not the wisest idea in view of the Yarra’s pollution levels, remains a long shot.
Paul’s opponent in his first Grand Slam semifinal on Friday will be none other than Novak Djokovic, who has won a men’s record nine singles titles at the Australian Open and who extended his winning streak at Melbourne Park to 26 matches on Thursday night, demolishing a fine player, the No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
“I could not be happier with my tennis,” Djokovic said, his left hamstring still tightly wrapped but his movement and ball striking beyond reproach.
Paul has practiced with Djokovic but never faced him on tour. Even though Djokovic and Rublev were still on court during Paul’s post-victory news conference, Paul said he wanted the ultimate Melbourne challenge.
“I probably have a better chance of winning if it’s Rublev, but to play Novak here in Australia would be awesome,” Paul said.
He has more support than when he started. His mother Jill MacMillan, a former college player at East Carolina University who was his first coach, arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday morning after flying from Newark to Los Angeles to Melbourne in economy class in her scrubs. She is an audiologist and had only a carry-on bag after scrambling to make the trip on short notice after Paul beat Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round.
“I texted Tommy once I was on my way and told him, ‘Your mom did something really crazy today. I just jumped on a flight from work,’” MacMillan said. “And he was like, ‘Unreal!’”
Twenty-four hours and not much sleep later, she was sitting in the players’ box.
“Oh my gosh, I was so high on adrenaline, I didn’t feel it,” she said. “But Ben made it pretty hard for him, though.”
Shelton, a 20-year-old lefthander from Gainesville, Fla. playing in his first Australian Open, continued to impress in only his fourth tour-level event, pounding aces or aggressive second serves on break points and fighting back to force a fourth set even though he struggled for much of the match to return Paul’s serve.
“I think everyone should be really excited for that kid,” Paul said, after shaking Shelton’s hand twice and embracing him at the net.
There is genuine camaraderie among this rising generation of Americans, and Paul is now guaranteed to join Fritz and Tiafoe in the top 20 on Monday.
He has already defeated top-drawer opponents: beating Rafael Nadal and the world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in 2022. He is an all-surface threat who grew up playing on green clay at his family’s club in North Carolina and won the French Open boys’ title on red clay in 2015, beating Fritz in the final. Last year, he reached the fourth round at Wimbledon on grass.
Now, he has made his deepest Grand Slam run on a hard court. The Yarra River, which still flows past Melbourne Park, awaits if Paul can beat the odds (and Djokovic) and become the first of his peer group to win a major title.
“Actually, I think he will be the one taking a swim if he wins,” Stine said with a grin.