Challenger Q&A: Paul Wins Maiden Title In Charlottesville
Victory never tasted so sweet for Tommy Paul. For more than three years, the #NextGenATP American has battled on the ATP Challenger Tour in search of his maiden moment. It has been a long journey, but, under the tutelage of coach Diego Moyano, all the work is paying off.
On Sunday, the 21-year-old became a Challenger champion for the first time. After losing in the final round of qualifying in Charlottesville, he did not drop a set in the main draw as a lucky loser, culminating with a 6-2, 6-2 win over close friend Peter Polansky.
Paul, who lost in qualifying to Petros Chrysochos, entered the main draw a determined man. He dropped a combined six games in beating Noah Rubin and Kamil Majchrzak, followed by back-to-back upsets of third seed Ivo Karlovic and top seed Bradley Klahn. Revenge was sweet for the North Carolina native, who lost to Rubin in the 2015 final, having led by a set and a double break.
Just the second lucky loser champion of 2018, joining countryman Ulises Blanch (Perugia, Italy), Paul rises 55 spots to No. 222 in the ATP Rankings. He will look to continue his push towards a Top 200 return before the end of the season.
Tommy spoke to broadcaster Mike Cation following his victory in Charlottesville.
This is a big moment for you. You took a knee when you got to your chair. What did you say to yourself in that moment?
I was just thinking how tough my year has been. In the beginning of the year, I started well in Australia. I was playing well, but I didn't have the results that I wanted. I ended up getting injured for five or six months and the comeback from that was really slow. I'm just thinking about that. It's really nice to get the win here.
I hate bringing this up, but I'm sure in some way you were thinking about the 2015 final, being a set and two breaks up. I might make a big deal of it, but how much did you think about that this week?
With me, usually when something is done, it's in the past. But it would definitely get under my skin when people bring it up. [My coach] Diego [Moyano] loves bringing up my old matches to try and keep me going in practice. During the match I wasn't really thinking about it too much, because it's hard to feel much pressure as a lucky loser. I think I had a bit of an advantage there. I was just playing my game and not overthinking too much.
Having seen you for the past three-plus years, it was interesting to watch you play this week. You were completely locked in from the first ball of the main draw. It was all business.
That was the goal. It's something that everyone I know is telling me. I've been trying to buy into it. It was good. I definitely had a business-like attitude during the week and it was helpful for me physically too. If I'm playing long matches, my body doesn't hold up well. Having played through qualies, playing short matches in the main draw was important for me.
You were working with Scott Clark this week, the physio who has been working with Bjorn Fratangelo and Bradley Klahn. How much did that help, considering your knee tendinitis?
My knee has definitely been bothering me a lot. Through qualies, I didn't know how it would hold up. I know I'm going to play the rest of the tournaments this year, because I need to try to get into Australian Open qualies. Diego and I were talking and he said that Doc's here, so we should work with him the rest of the week. Right after I lost and saw I got the lucky loser, I spoke to him and we started working together. The knee didn't feel perfect, but it definitely helped a lot to get through all these matches.
To get a lucky loser is great, but this was not a lucky draw for you. Between Noah Rubin, Bradley Klahn, Ivo Karlovic, Peter Polansky, that's not an easy draw. Yet you made it look easy and didn't drop a set. What was it in terms of the style of play that worked?
For me, I don't think I had a great service week. But I think the biggest thing was my return. I was returning really well. The only time in the tournament I did not return well was the first five of Ivo's service games. He wasn't missing first serves. Besides that, I felt I was returning really well. When that happens, it puts a lot of pressure on my opponents and helps me with those neutral groundstoke points. That was the biggest difference for me.
Against Klahn, you didn't give him many opportunities. Maybe you didn't have the biggest winner count. You kept him in positions that were uncomfortable. Is that the style you're looking for long term?
Exactly. For me, the biggest thing is the returns and not checking out mentally when I'm on the run. Just staying in there and making him hit another tough ball. As long as they're not comfortable, I'll take that any day of the week.
American #NextGenATP Winners In 2018
|Tommy Paul||Charlottesville, USA|
|Taylor Fritz||Newport Beach, USA
|Reilly Opelka||Bordeaux, France|
|Michael Mmoh||Columbus, USA & Tiburon, USA|
|Ulises Blanch||Perugia, Italy|
It's obviously been a very long road for you. Two years ago, you played out this swing of tournaments looking lost. You didn't want to be out here. How sweet does this moment feel considering where you were?
I had some low points this year as well. I'll tell you that. This is the best part of winning, considering the matches you played earlier and the dark place you were in then. There were times I went home and didn't want to think about anything with tennis. It's good for me right now. I have two more weeks and then some R&R, which I won't mind at all.
Diego Moyano has been such a mainstay in your corner over the years. What has that relationship been like for you, considering you guys seem so opposite?
He's my rock. If I didn't have him, I think I'd go off the rails. He keeps me straight. Diego's the best. Nobody wants me to win more than him. It's great having him. This is his last week on the road this year, so when I lost in qualies and got the lucky loser, I said to him, 'No you're not going home yet. You don't get to go on vacation.' Every match it was the same. And now I just said to him, 'Ok, you can go home now.'
He's a father figure for you. What's it like off the court?
It's much more than just tennis. He lives a mile away from me and we have barbecues. I'm always over there. I'm really close with his family. He's just a really great guy for me and a father figure for sure.
So many of these young Americans, with Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, are playing well. Your win comes at the same time they are in Milan. Is that an extra motivation for you?
I mean, I definitely want to be there, but I didn't earn it. I have to deal with that. I missed my chance. Hopefully I'll play the big one [the Nitto ATP Finals], one day. I hope they do well over there. Obviously, I'm very jealous. I want to be there, but I'll take a title this week.
How do you celebrate tonight, considering you have to get to Knoxville?
I'm driving there! [laughs] But maybe I'll have a beer when I get there. Maybe a glass of wine, but we'll see. Definitely something when I get there. At the end of the year, I'm going to Europe to see my girlfriend. Will probably do a bit of celebrating over there.