Tommy Paul’s remarkable, under-the-radar run at the Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Tommy Paul is the first American man since Andy Roddick in 2009 to make the Australian Open semifinals. He is the lone American left in either singles draw. But he’s still managing to fly under the radar at this tournament.

So low is Paul flying, that just minutes after he punched his ticket into the last four — defeating Australian Open debutant Ben Shelton in four entertaining sets on Rod Laver Arena — one of the first questions asked by on-court interviewer John Fitzgerald was about his opponent’s magical run.

It’s not an unfair question to ask — it was Shelton’s second major appearance ever, and his first overseas trip outside the United States. To make a Grand Slam quarterfinal is a massive achievement.

But it was also Paul’s first time as a Slam quarterfinalist.

For the world No. 35, it was symbolic of the fortnight he’s had — quietly toiling away on the outside courts and banking wins. And now Paul will face nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic on Friday.

“I mean, I’ve been on the outside courts grinding until the round of 16,” he said, smiling in his press conference. “[I] haven’t had too many, like, big-name matchups.”

The attention on the men’s side of the draw has been on Rafael Nadal’s early exit, Djokovic’s hamstring concerns, and, more recently, Karen Khachanov’s messages of support for an embattled region in the Caucuses. Even in terms of American stories, Paul has been well down the pecking order.

But for Paul, it’s been a remarkable tournament considering he made just one semifinal at tour level last year, at a 250-level event in Delray Beach in which he banked wins over the world No. 267 and 151 en-route to the last four.

Paul said he sees these past two weeks as an opportunity, not only for himself, but for the American men who for two decades have been told they need to step up and fill the gap after Roddick won the US Open in 2003 — the last time an American man won a Grand Slam.

“Since I was young, that’s all we’ve been hearing, since like 14 years old,” Paul said of the drought.

“We had the posters of him when he won in his Reebok fit. I was actually salty when he switched to Lacoste. I was like, ‘he’s not going to win another Slam now’. I thought it was the outfits.”

And while Paul’s prediction was true, probably no part thanks to the sponsor change, a semifinal isn’t the end goal for him or the rest of the “next-gen” American men, after Frances Tiafoe made the last four of the US Open last year.

“The coaches have been telling us, ‘We need new Americans, we need new Americans’,” he said.

“It’s kind of ingrained in my head. We all want to perform … I mean, I think we all want it pretty bad for ourselves, but we want it for U.S. tennis, too.”

Regardless of what happens in his next match against Djokovic, Paul will rise into the top 20 in the ATP rankings. He’s also assured a massive payday of at least $621,000.

And the narrative will deservedly shift to him, the 25-year-old from New Jersey with a rock-solid game — and the first American man to make the semifinals in Melbourne in 14 years.

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