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It’s Tommy Paul vs. Novak Djokovic in an Australian Open Semifinal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — The tennis breakthroughs keep coming for Tommy Paul and his American friends.

Taylor Fritz became the primary of their peer group to win a Masters 1000 title last 12 months on the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.

Just a few months later, Frances Tiafoe became the primary of their group to achieve a Grand Slam semifinal in singles, pushing eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz to 5 sets.

Now Paul, a smooth-moving talent who grew up near a small tennis academy run by his family in Greenville, N.C., has turn into the primary American man to achieve an Australian Open singles semifinal since Andy Roddick in 2009.

For Paul, who defeated American newcomer Ben Shelton, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, within the quarterfinals on Wednesday, all this is not any coincidence.

“I feel it applies rather a lot,” Paul said. “You see Fritz win a Masters 1000, and I feel all of us we’re all glad for him, but we’re all like, ‘OK, he did it. We will try this.’

“After which ‘Foe makes semifinals of the U.S. Open and had probabilities within the semis, and who knows what would have happened if he had won that match? So, you see that occur, and also you’re, like, ‘All right, that’s awesome. I’m glad for him, but I can try this.’”

The 12 months’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.

Paul, 25, has taken the hint, with ample encouragement from his veteran coach Brad Stine, who began working with him in September 2019 when Paul was outside the highest 100 and had recently lost funding and training support from america Tennis Association and was denied a wild card on the 2019 U.S. Open.

“That was based on some disciplinary things,” Stine said.

But Stine was impressed by Paul’s openness to coaching and alter — and his ability to handle world-class pace from the baseline — and though there have been some setbacks and a lot of text messages, Stine feels Paul’s game is maturing and his commitment growing.

“We went from him identifying himself as a counterpuncher,” said Stine, “to being a man that’s in search of forehands and attempting to dictate and dominate the court with the forehand, which was an enormous change because Tommy’s backhand had at all times been the more solid side of his game.”

Stine already has helped a young American succeed down under.

He was a part of Jim Courier’s coaching team in 1992 and 1993 when Courier won back-to-back Australian Open singles titles and jumped within the Yarra River with Stine to have a good time.

“He’s done a lot for my game,” Paul said of Stine. “Previously 4 years, he’s really taken me up many, many levels. I’m really appreciative, and hopefully we are able to keep going. I’m going to make him jump within the Yarra if we win this thing. I’m not going, but I’m going to make him do it.”

That swim, perhaps not the wisest idea in view of the Yarra’s pollution levels, stays an extended shot.

Paul’s opponent in his first Grand Slam semifinal on Friday can be none aside from Novak Djokovic, who has won a men’s record nine singles titles on the Australian Open and who prolonged his winning streak at Melbourne Park to 26 matches on Thursday night, demolishing a high-quality player, the No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

“I couldn’t be happier with my tennis,” Djokovic said, his left hamstring still tightly wrapped but his movement and ball striking beyond reproach.

Paul has practiced with Djokovic but never faced him on tour. Though Djokovic and Rublev were still on court during Paul’s post-victory news conference, Paul said he wanted the last word Melbourne challenge.

“I probably have a greater probability of winning if it’s Rublev but to play Novak here in Australia can be awesome,” Paul said.

He has more support than when he began. His mother Jill MacMillan, a former college player at East Carolina University who was his first coach, arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday morning after flying from Newark to Los Angeles to Melbourne in economy class in her scrubs. She is an audiologist and had only a carry-on bag after scrambling to make the trip on short notice after Paul beat Roberto Bautista Agut within the fourth round.

“I texted Tommy once I used to be on my way and told him, ‘Your mom did something really crazy today. I just jumped on a flight from work,’” MacMillan said. “And he was like, ‘Unreal!’”

Twenty-four hours and never much sleep later, she was sitting within the players box.

“Oh my gosh, I used to be so high on adrenaline, I didn’t feel it,” she said. “But Ben made it pretty hard for him, though.”

Shelton, a 20-year-old lefthander from Gainesville, Fla. playing in his first Australian Open, continued to impress in just his fourth tour-level event, pounding aces or aggressive second serves on break points and fighting back to force a fourth set although he struggled for much of the match to return Paul’s serve.

“I feel everyone must be really excited for that child,” Paul said, after shaking Shelton’s hand twice and embracing him at the web.

There may be real camaraderie amongst this rising generation of Americans, and Paul is now guaranteed to hitch Fritz and Tiafoe in the highest 20 on Monday.

He already has defeated top-drawer opponents: beating Rafael Nadal and the world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in 2022. He’s an all-surface threat who grew up playing on green clay at his family’s club in North Carolina and won the French Open boys’ title on red clay in 2015, beating Fritz in the ultimate. Last 12 months, he reached the fourth round at Wimbledon on grass.

Now, he has made his deepest Grand Slam run on a hardcourt. The Yarra River, which still flows past Melbourne Park, awaits if Paul can beat the percentages (and Djokovic) and turn into the primary of his peer group to win a significant title.

“Actually, I feel he can be the one taking a swim if he wins,” Stine said with a smile.

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