MELBOURNE, Australia -- Tommy Paul has never been the chosen one in American men’s tennis.
Ever since he left Greenville at age 13 to go train at the USTA National Training Center in Florida, he’s had to fight for every scrap of attention he’s gotten.
He never received the flashy hype from the public or the media that came to the American kids his age, the ones he was practicing with all the time; people like Frances Tiafoe, Reilly Opelka or Taylor Fritz, who were variously hyped as the player to break the American men’s Grand Slam singles title drought, which turns 20 in 2023.
But after flying under the radar for years, battling his way through minor-league Challenger tournaments played in front of dozens of people where he sometimes earned just a few hundred dollars in prize money, and working his tail off to improve in practice, Paul is finally having his moment.
And he’s three wins away from a Grand Slam title.
The 25-year-old continued his fantastic Australian Open run on Monday morning (U.S. time), beating No. 24 seed Roberta Bautista Agut in four sets in the fourth round to advance to his first-ever Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Paul, blasting 136-mile per hour serves and winners in his 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 win, has reached the final eight of a major for the first time in his career. The former Junior French Open champion will now play fellow American Ben Shelton in the quarterfinals late Tuesday night/Wednesday morning on ESPN.
“That was a really physical, tough match. Anytime you play Bautista it’s going to be a war,” Paul said in his on-court interview Monday morning. “I thought I executed really well. I felt like I was running a lot. I wanted to be on offense more toward the end of the match, but it was tough. (All that running) wasn’t a lot of fun, but I’m so happy to get through that one.”
Paul, born in New Jersey before moving to North Carolina as a toddler, has marched through the draw in Melbourne playing both straightforward matches and difficult ones over the past week. His second-round match with 30th-seeded Alejandro Davidovich Fokina saw Paul rally from two sets to one down to snare a five-set win, while one round later he crushed fellow American Jenson Brooksby in straight sets, losing only eight games.
“I’m so excited,” Paul said in his postmatch press conference Monday. “It’s every person’s dream, when you start playing tennis, to play the big matches at the Slams, so I’m really excited to get out there on Wednesday.”
Paul, whose current live ATP ranking equals his career high of No. 28, has enjoyed a steady ascent since breaking into the Top 100 in 2019, when he began working with current coach Brad Stine. He reached the third round of the Australian Open in 2020, then in 2022 he really put himself on the bigger stages with a fourth-round showing at Wimbledon, and he advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open last September before losing a five-set thriller to No. 5 seed Casper Ruud.
When asked why he was making a breakthrough now, Paul pointed to the little things.
“I’ve been paying attention to the details a little more, in practice, on and off court,” he said. “I’ve got a good team around me, too. “And I’ve been having a lot of fun out there. It’s hard to play bad when you’re having fun.”
Paul now advances to face Shelton, a former NCAA singles champion from the University of Florida who has made a stunning run to the quarters. Shelton was ranked out of the Top 500 last year and this is his first tournament outside of America, yet he’s won four straight matches to reach his first Slam quarterfinal.
“I warmed up with him once in Cincinnati, but I know him better as a person than I know his game,” Paul said. “I’ll have to watch some film on him, but I know he’s having a great tournament.”
There are three American men in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2005, as late Monday night Sebastian Korda faced off with Karen Khachanov.