The last time Tommy Paul needed an attitude adjustment, he had just flamed out of a small tournament in the Netherlands in the spring of 2022 in the most petulant way, and his coach had seen enough.
Brad Stine, who guided Jim Courier to four Grand Slam singles titles and the world’s top ranking and coached several other top players of the past 20 years, is 64 years old and knows when a player has crossed the line from battling through a rough patch into behaving unprofessionally.
For several weeks, he had watched Paul act like a child instead of a man in his mid-20s. During an opening-round match in Geneva that May, Paul had mocked someone sitting in the player box of his opponent, Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands. Paul thought the man was cheering too loudly. Another time, in the grass-court tournament in ’s Hertogenbosch, he had disrespected Brandon Nakashima, a fellow American, yelling that he should not have been losing to a player he felt he was much better than.
Stine’s kids are grown and his bills are paid. He has been to tennis’ mountaintop. He doesn’t need the work. He needed to tell Paul exactly what he believed, and if their three-year player-coach relationship ended there, so be it.
“You’re embarrassing me,” Stine told Paul as they talked in a quiet spot at the tournament after the loss to Nakashima. Then he rattled off his complaints about Paul’s attitude and competitiveness during the previous month.
Paul absorbed Stine’s words for a few moments before he spoke, then told Stine he didn’t disagree with anything he had said.
Among the top American men, Frances Tiafoe, a 25-year-old son of immigrants from Sierra Leone whose run to the U.S. Open semifinals last year was electrifying, sucks up most of the oxygen these days. Taylor Fritz, the 25-year-old Californian, has the highest ranking among the group and last year won the BNP Paribas Open, the so-called fifth Slam. Sebastian Korda, the son of a Grand Slam singles champion, has the pedigree.
But Paul, 26, who has a dangerous, all-court playing style, who likes to hold a rod and reel in his hands as much as (OK, maybe more than) a tennis racket, has arguably had the best season of them all.
He is the only American man to make a semifinal of a Grand Slam tournament, falling to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, which Djokovic went on to win for a record 10th time. Paul’s ranking shot up to No. 13 this month, from No. 35 in January. He has given Carlos Alcaraz, the world No. 1, fits during the past month, beating him for the second time in his career in Toronto, then falling in three tight sets to him a week later in the Cincinnati suburbs.
The rewards, including nearly $2 million in prize money, have begun rolling in. His agents at GSE Worldwide have gotten Paul new endorsement deals with Yonex, a racket manufacturer; De Bethune, the maker of his luxury watch; Motorola; IBM; Acorns, a financial management firm; and Celsius, a beverage maker. He appeared in a fashion photo spread in Vanity Fair, his hair slicked down and his body wrapped in a shiny overcoat.
“Not really my thing,” said Paul, who is more suited to a trucker hat and a hoody than haute couture.
This was the way it was supposed to go for Paul, who was almost always the best in his age group among American junior players. He won the French Open junior title in 2015. But then came a frustrating climb up the tennis ladder, years when Paul’s desire and commitment to his craft failed to match the talent that he had showcased from the time he was a small boy, and he learned the hard way that talent only gets a player so far.
“He was the big fish in the little pond, and then he got out there and realized, these other players they’re better, and they’re working harder, too,” said his mother and first coach, Jill MacMillan, who was courtside for Paul’s four-set, first-round win over Stefano Travaglia of Italy on Monday. She and her husband live on a small farm in South Jersey, with two horses, eight sheep and various other animals.
In talking about his journey later that night, Paul was philosophical.
“I don’t think I ever really stopped believing,” he said. “I kind of knew that I could make it. I just didn’t really know how to do it.”
Or if he really wanted to.
Growing up in Greenville, N.C., where his mother and her ex-husband owned and operated a health club with some tennis courts, Paul received his first tennis racket from an older woman whom Paul and his siblings called Grandma Betty — she wasn’t their grandmother — when, he thinks, he was about 5 years old. He promptly went outside and started banging it against a tree. She followed him out and told him that wasn’t how he was supposed to use it.
Paul and his older sister started spending every afternoon playing tennis at the health club. Beating his sister, who would go on to play collegiate tennis, was his earliest goal. MacMillan said that when Paul started playing — and winning — tournaments at age 6, he barely knew the rules or how to keep score. “He just loved to hit the ball.”
That love never faded, even as Paul played plenty of baseball and basketball before focusing exclusively on tennis when he was about 13. Then tennis got serious and a little weird.
He has vivid memories of seeing parents hitting their children for losing tournaments. His parents could not afford intensive private coaching, so Paul began to spend much of his time practicing at the United States Tennis Association’s training grounds in Florida. There were a lot of rules and a lot of coaches telling Paul what to do, such as to limit his time with friends and family. Sometimes he listened and followed the rules and practiced hard. Sometimes he didn’t. He still won plenty, so there weren’t many repercussions.
He planned on attending the University of Georgia. But then he started winning lower tier pro tournaments and captured the junior title at the French Open. So instead of going to college he turned professional.
Big mistake. No agents 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 U.S. Open, when the aftereffects of a night of indulgence after a first-round loss in singles led to a 6-0, 6-0 loss in a doubles match. A falling out with the U.S.T.A, ultimately resulting in his loss of support, ensued over the next several months.
“That was a different life,” Paul said last week while sitting on a couch in a home in Southampton on Long Island, where he was a guest of the chairman of GSE, his agency.
Paul said losing the support from the U.S.T.A. was the best thing that could have happened to him. Finally, he had to take responsibility for his future in tennis, hiring his own trainer and coach. He stopped going through the motions in the gym and on the practice court.
“I wasn’t going to waste my investment,” he said.
The biggest one came in 2019, when following a loss in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, he asked Stine, whose main player was battling injuries, to evaluate his game.
As he watched Paul play, Stine didn’t understand how such a gifted athlete could so often be off balance on the court. He gave him a list of 11 things to fix, everything from improving his footwork to developing a slice. He shared his “conversion theory,” that all it takes to completely shift the momentum of any game regardless of the score is winning three points in a row.
“Do the math,” Stine said. He’s not wrong.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Paul and his compatriots spent much of their time in Southern California, playing at the Los Angeles-area mansions of tennis enthusiasts. He was still getting used to feeling like he belonged.
Eight days before the U.S. Open, Paul was fishing for tuna off Long Island. His face lights up as he talks about the hourlong fight to land a 350-pounder too big to keep. He has yet to buy his own boat, but has been pricing them out. The next day he was on the court of another seaside mansion practicing for two hours with Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.
“I want him to continue to have fun,” Stine said later at the mansion they were calling home for the pretournament week.
Was Paul having fun? His eyes went to the sprawling lawn and the pool and backyard tennis court.
“Look where we are,” he said.