When I briefly worked for The Tennis Channel, I learned that, all else being equal, men’s tennis tended to be more popular than women’s matches, and the success of American men all the more ideal. The year before I worked there, 2009, was the last time an American male (Andy Roddick) reached the semifinals of the Australian Open.
If you haven’t been paying attention (and since my sleeping patterns have become more erratic, I cop to that), two young Americans squared off in a quarterfinal match where the more seasoned of the two, 25-year-old Tommy Paul, ousted 20-year-old upstart Ben Shelton, in a thrilling four-set match that has kickstarted Paul to international prominence and the role of the ultimate underdog in his semifinal match, scheduled for early tomorrow morning U.S. time.
As The New York Times’ Christopher Clarey wrote, Paul has now become the leader of a new pack of American males that are seeking prominence in a sport that has just lost Roger Federer, sees Rafael Nadal plagued by injury and whose current #1 rank is, well, polarizing.
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.
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 we’re all happy for him, but we’re all like, ‘OK, he did it. We can do that.’
“And then ‘Foe makes semifinals of the U.S. 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.’”
So it is Paul that has finally broken through to a Grand Slam Final Four, and now the drama really begins:
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 Wednesday 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.
The tale of the tape underscores the degree of difficulty ahead, First, Tommy Paul:
|Career record||96–79 (54.9%)|
|Highest ranking||No. 28 (26 September 2022)|
|Current ranking||No. 35 (9 January 2023)|
|Grand Slam singles results|
|Australian Open||SF (2023)|
|French Open||2R (2020, 2021)|
|US Open||3R (2022)|
Now, Novak Djokovic:
|Career record||1041–206 (83.5%)[a]|
|Career titles||92 (4th in the Open Era)|
|Highest ranking||No. 1 (4 July 2011)|
|Current ranking||No. 5 (21 November 2022)|
|Grand Slam singles results|
|Australian Open||W (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020, 2021)|
|French Open||W (2016, 2021)|
|Wimbledon||W (2011, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022)|
|US Open||W (2011, 2015, 2018)|
|Tour Finals||W (2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2022)|
Yet because the world loves an underdog, Paul will at least have the support of virtually all of America as well as many other Joker-haters around the world as he tries to deny Novak a tie with Nadal for the all-time record for grand slam titles.
Because, as we’ve written previously, Novak remains defiantly unvaccinated. He missed two opportunities, including last year’s Australian Open, to tie Nadal in 2022. With the world no longer mandating vaccines for many clear-cut reasons, Djokovic has resumed his quest, and his road so far in Melbourne has been relatively smooth, winning 15 of 16 sets (his only loss coming in a second round second set tie-breaker).
And, for many Americans who see Djokovic as some sort of supervillain because of his beliefs, Paul has now been exalted to an even higher level of fandom. Tennis fans, particularly ones who lie awake in the middle of the night, have their own beliefs dug in as deeply as Djokovic, and let’s just say they’re rooting for Paul for many reasons beyond his tennis upside.
I’m rarely an optimist, particularly these days. I’m ashamed to say what I think of Novak’s beliefs, though I suspect you’ve already figured it out. Voltaire, you know.
But I really am rooting for Paul to pull off the upset. Tennis will hopefully endure longer than any virus, and the sport does need an infusion of new, younger talent to attract a generation of fans who have increasingly myriad viewing and fanatic options. Even in defeat, Shelton’s surprising run has increased his stardom, and a win against the sport’s top dog will likely make Paul the biggest American male star on the horizon since at least Roddick, if not Pete Sampras or Jim Courier.
I am glad he’s got a shot. Probably three or four, actually.