MELBOURNE – Tommy Paul went into his first career Grand Slam semifinal with a specific game plan to confront Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open. Makes sense, right? Have to approach that sort of match with a way you think will help you win.
And then, Paul explained, it all fell apart rather quickly in what became a 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 loss to Djokovic, who has won nine of his 21 Grand Slam titles at Melbourne Park.
“I mean, he didn’t let me do all those things,” said the 25-year-old American, who was born in New Jersey, grew up in North Carolina and is now based in Florida, “because of things that he did so well.”
They played under the lights in front of a packed house at Rod Laver Arena. Djokovic knows these settings and circumstances so well, especially at a tournament where he's won 27 matches in a row and is 19-0 in semifinals and finals for his career. He will face Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday for the title.
“I mean, walking on the court was cool,” said Paul, the first U.S. man in the semifinals at Melbourne Park since Andy Roddick in 2009. “Playing the match and getting beaten like that kind of sucked. But, I mean, it’s great I got to see the level of where I want to be and know how good I have to play if I want to beat people like that. It was I think a good experience."
Let's let the unseeded Paul explain what his strategy was and what happened:
— “I wanted to serve and volley some. I didn’t serve and volley once. ... When I did make my first serve, I felt like he was returning it to the baseline. I was automatically on defense. Like, you get down love-30 in your service games, it’s hard to be like, ‘All right, I’m going to serve and volley now.’"
— “Wanted to throw in drop shots. Didn’t get an opportunity to do any of that because he was hitting so deep.”
— “Wanted to change up pace with my slice. Missed my first three slices of the match. I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to start hitting my backhand; I’m not slicing well today.'”
— “Attack on the second serve. He definitely surprised me. On big points, he was going big seconds. Pretty much every point, the average second-serve speed was a little higher than I thought it was going to be.”
All of that said, Paul did make some inroads against Djokovic.
He did, after all, win more of the 23 points that lasted at least nine strokes, 14-9.
There were the two break points in the match's opening game — although Djokovic ended up holding there.
“It felt like things were getting away from me really fast,” Paul said. “Felt like points were moving really fast. In-between-points time was going really quick.”
There was the four-game run that turned Paul's 5-1 deficit into 5-all in the opening set — although Djokovic then proceeded to collect seven games in a row and 14 of the remaining 17.
“I was really fortunate to kind of hold my nerves toward the end of the first set. That was a key,” Djokovic said. “After that, I started swinging through the ball more.”
The 35th-ranked Paul had never been past the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament before.
His first trip to the semifinals of a major will lift his ranking into the top 20 for the first time.
“I want to keep moving up the rankings, you know? It would be nice to end the year top-10. I feel like the way I started the year is the right path to do it,” he said. “Obviously I have a lot of matches to win this year. Hopefully get some titles, too. I don’t want to just lose in semifinals. I want to have my name on some trophies.”
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