Tommy Paul seeks Grand Slam success at French Open

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Tommy Paul paid close attention as his friends and countrymen Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka produced headline-worthy performances at the Australian Open.

Now Paul aims to make his own Grand Slam breakthrough when he heads to his first French Open main draw in two weeks, thanks to winning the U.S. Tennis Association men’s wild-card challenge.

“I’ve known Frances since I was 9. Known Reilly since I was 10. Known Fritz since I was 13. I love seeing them do well,” Paul said in a telephone interview. “I know how hard every single one of them works. All of them deserve it.”

At Melbourne in January, Tiafoe made his first major quarterfinal before losing to Rafael Nadal. Fritz got to the third round there for the first time before bowing out against Roger Federer. Opelka earned his first Grand Slam match win by upsetting No. 9 seed John Isner.

“Obviously, it’s a little bit of a motivator for me, because I see them doing that well in the tournaments and working so hard in practice – and I’m working just as hard as them,” said Paul, who grew up in North Carolina and now is based at the USTA national campus in Florida. “And I want to be exactly where they were during the Australian Open.”

Each member of that American quartet is 21; Paul turns 22 on Friday. They went through the junior ranks together and now give the country a crop of young talent pushing its way up the ranks in the pros.

“It’s a group that kind of came up together. Did really, really well at the junior level,” said Martin Blackman, the general manager of USTA player development. “They push each other, because … they all believe they can do similar things, I think. That positive peer pressure is a really healthy dynamic.”

Lauren Davis, a 25-year-old from Ohio, clinched the USTA women’s wild-card berth Sunday to secure a seventh French Open appearance. Davis is a former top-30 player whose ranking dropped to No. 264 last year after she sat out the clay-court circuit, citing fatigue.

Paul was the French Open junior champion in 2015, beating Fritz in the final to become only the second U.S. player since John McEnroe in 1977 to win the boys’ title there. Fritz defeated Paul in that year’s U.S. Open junior final.

At Roland Garros, where play begins May 26, Paul will be contesting his third main draw at a major tournament, after a pair of U.S. Open appearances.

Unlike many Americans over the years, he has an affinity for the slow surface used in Paris. That’s because he learned to play tennis on green clay.

“It was all we practiced on, all I played on, growing up. All I really knew,” Paul said. “I feel like it’s more like a crafty surface. You can mix in drop shots and you have to play a lot more different balls. A lot more factors into the game.”

Despite missing months at a time last season with an injured right elbow, and again this season because of a problematic left knee, he reached a career-high 136th in the ATP rankings last week.

“I’ve just been really impressed by how he’s worked and rehabbed. Just watching him put the work in every day. Taking care of his body. Taking ownership. Becoming more mature,” the USTA’s Blackman said. “That shows the self-awareness and maturity that’s just a huge part of a player being able to maximize their potential.”

Paul’s goal at the moment is to get into the top 50 by the end of the season; he knows the French Open provides an opportunity to take strides toward that.

He says “every part of my game has room for improvement,” and thinks the key is “having more of an open mind about trying to improve everything – off the court, especially.”

He went on: “Just doing everything a little bit more professional now. … Working with a psychologist on breathing or what to be thinking at certain times of a match. Or diet stuff, making sure I’m eating healthy. Doing my recovery. Talking to my team, to my coaches, to my agents, to my parents. Making sure everybody’s in the loop and we’re all doing everything we can to boost my game.”