Americans at Wimbledon: Emma Navarro and Tommy Paul go under the tennis radar


WIMBLEDON — American tennis has long been the haven of big names and big personalities. 

McEnroe and Navratilova, Agassi and Roddick, Williams and Williams, and Gauff and Shelton. All of them lived and live in the spotlight, at times seeking it out like flakes of iron rising to a magnet. 

At the 2024 edition of Wimbledon, the three Americans left in the draw have landed in the quarterfinals on their talent, and their masterful way of floating under the radar. The biggest names, with Grand Slam titles and late-stage pedigree — Coco Gauff, Ben Shelton, Jessica Pegula, and Frances Tiafoe — are all out, though Gauff and Pegula remain in the doubles.

The Americans still standing are the ones who don’t come into a tournament with hordes curious about their results each day — at least not yet.

They don’t mind all that much. Life can be a bit calmer that way.

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Navarro upset Gauff on Centre Court (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

No 19 seed Emma Navarro was hanging around the house she and her family have rented in Wimbledon Village the other day. There were some workers doing maintenance on the roof. They spotted her down below.

“They shouted out at me, ‘Good luck today,’ so that was pretty cool,” Navarro, 23, said after her fourth-round win over Gauff, who has had people recognizing her since her pre-teen years.

Tommy Paul, who is seeded 12th, takes on Carlos Alcaraz on Tuesday afternoon. After winning the Wimbledon tuneup at Queen’s Club in west London, Paul became the top-ranked American man, with a smaller number next to his name than the compatriots he regularly sees on massive billboards.

Paul is 27, and has been on the professional tour for six years. He made the semifinals of the Australian Open last year.

He entered Centre Court — the building, not the court — for the first time last week to watch Tiafoe, a close friend, take on Alcaraz. Paul’s been playing his matches this year on the smaller show courts.

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Paul has acclimatised to Wimbledon after winning Queen’s (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“I just came here to play tennis, I don’t care what court they put me on.” he said, as if the All England Club was some some little tennis center in the sticks.

There’s also Taylor Fritz, the 13th seed, who came back from two sets down against Alexander Zverev on Centre Court on Monday. When it mattered, he finally figured out how to keep Zverev and his ailing knee on the run, forcing him to bend painfully into Fritz’s low, flat shots, especially on the backhand side.

What did Zverev have to say about it?

“I was on one leg out there today,” he said. He also didn’t like people from Fritz’s box cheering so loudly when his opponent was injured. “People who may not be from the tennis world,” he said about a box containing Fritz’s tennis team; his dad, a former professional, and his girlfriend, social media influencer Morgan Riddle, who may be better known with large segments of the population than he is, and who is responsible for some immeasurable amount of his popularity.

“When ur man wins 4 the girls,” was her assessment of their match.

Fritz has flirted with the radar. He was one of the stars of “Break Point,” the Netflix show about life on the tennis tour.

go-deeper

He also made highlight reels last year after beating a Frenchman at the French Open. After enduring four sets of vitriol from the partisan Roland Garros crowd during his match against Arthur Rinderknech, Fritz celebrated by bouncing toward the net with a finger to his lips, shushing the crowd and screaming at them “I wanna hear it!”

Rinderknech called Fritz out for it before their second round match last week. Fritz beat him badly.

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Fritz vs. Roland Garros in 2023 (Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

Then he made more headlines, when he got to the net and told Rinderknech to “have a nice flight home” with a patronising pat on the shoulder. After defeating Zverev, he reflected on the feeling of going into a Grand Slam quarterfinal as the more experienced guy on court; he faces Lorenzo Musetti, who is experiencing this altitude on the grass of SW19 for the first time.


Flying under the radar as an American at Wimbledon has gotten easier in recent years. There were seven in the last 16 of the singles draws, the most in two decades. Thanks to Fritz and Paul, there are two in the men’s quarterfinals for the first time since 2000. That was when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were winning the thing all the time, and just before Serena and Venus won it many times more. They weren’t on the radar, let alone above it — they were flying too high for that.

The true masters of the low-key existence, at least for now, are Navarro and Paul. Paul has a social media influencer girlfriend, Paige Lorenze. She likely gets recognized far more than he does, even after Paul did a Vogue fashion photo shoot last year.

It wasn’t really his thing

An older guy walking his dog one morning on the street where Paul was renting his house in Indian Wells did stop him, but only to verify that he was indeed one of the players from Break Point. It doesn’t happen too much.     

On the court, Paul and Navarro are in so many ways the male and female versions of each other. They are the sorts of players whose prowess isn’t visually obvious unless you are at least a little literate in the biomechanics and hallmarks of tennis. They don’t have the standout weapon, or the beautiful flair shot, but they are hard-hitting, steady, aggressive baseliners with finesse and feel to compliment the fire.

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Paul stayed ahead of the sun to move into the last-16. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

When they are on, they demand that they take over the court, pushing their opponents back onto their heels. They’ve been doing it all week here in London — and for the better part of the year, while steadily climbing up the rankings.

There are little idiosyncrasies too. Navarro’s forehand is heavy, arcing and spitting out of the court, its parabola deceiving Gauff at a crucial moment. She left a ball curving past her left shoulder thinking it was long. It kissed the baseline and put her a set down.

They can move, too, so often finding a way to get their feet behind the ball and their hips right over. Paul, in particular, has a strangely skating gait, that looks harmless until he sneaks up on you at the net for the tenth time.

They lose points and games like any tennis player, but rarely because they lose their balance. And they play poker-faced, their body language and facial expressions the same regardless of whether they are winning or losing or battling for their tennis lives. Paul twirls his racket when things are going well, but that’s about it, and he says he doesn’t even realize he is doing it.  

“He has very good legs, a very good eye,” Roberto Bautista Agut, the veteran Spaniard, said of Paul before their fourth-round match. “He has a good serve. He also makes solid returns, and he’s very solid from baseline. He’s very complete. He’s a great player, one of the best. It’s going to be nice to face him.” Very complimentary; nothing that stands out. Just how Paul wants to be.

Racing against a setting sun Sunday evening, Paul ran through Bautista Agut 6-2, 7-6(4) 6-2.

As for Navarro, opponents were still figuring out who she was tennis-wise earlier this year. She won her first tournament at the tour level in January, but that was in Hobart, Australia, the week before the Australian Open. 

At Indian Wells in March, she played a charity doubles competition called Tiebreak Tens. At one point, Maria Sakkari and Shelton were on the other side of the net. After a few points, Shelton, caught off-guard by Navarro’s game, approached Sakkari.

“She’s good,” he told her with a look of wide-eyed surprise.

“Yeah,” Sakkari said, “She’s low-key really good.”

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Shelton and Navarro at Indian Wells (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Maybe it’s something about hailing from the Carolinas. Paul grew up in Greenville, N.C., where his mother and stepfather owned a health club with a few clay courts, which sounds fancier than it is. His mother enrolled him and his sister in the kids program, which she taught, because it was cheaper than hiring a babysitter, and there wasn’t much extra cash to go around. Each August, the family would drive 12 hours to New York City to watch the U.S. Open qualifying because tickets are free that week. 

Navarro moved to Charleston, S.C.  from New York City when she was three. Her father, Ben, was and is a wealthy financial executive. He’s an owner of Credit One, and now two tour tennis tournaments, in Cincinnati and Charleston.

Good luck guessing that when seeing or speaking to Navarro, who wanders around tournaments in cotton t-shirts without labels and none of the sparkling jewellery or $70,000 watches that other players wear. On the tour, she nearly always stays in the player hotels rather than luxury rented houses, and catches the same layover-laden flights that everyone else does.  

As a teenager, she became one of the top junior tennis players in the world, building a resume good enough to begin playing professionally. She chose to go to the University of Virginia, where she won the NCAA title her freshman year, and then came back for another season with barely even a consideration of going pro.

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Navarro in the final of the girls’ French Open in 2019, where she faced fellow top 30 player Leylah Fernandez (Julian Finney / Getty Images)

Sara O’Leary, her coach at Virginia, said she very nearly came back for a third year. She loved being part of a team and she liked college, balancing school with training and practice, the occasional pro tournament, and the social life of a big southern school. But she was already ranked in the top 200 and holding her own against professionals in lower-tier tournaments.

O’Leary said there was a teary, soul-searching conversation, where she did far more listening while Navarro did most of the talking and the crying.

At the end it was clear it that it was time for her to move on. 

Navarro’s superpower, according to O’Leary?

“She does an amazing job of staying present wherever she is,” O’Leary said in an interview from Virginia Monday. “I wish I could do that.”

The past week she has spent a good bit of time staying present on Centre Court at Wimbledon, beating Grand Slam champions. In the second round she took out Naomi Osaka, a four-time slam winner and former world No 1, with the same crisp, relentless game that overwhelmed Gauff, the world No 2. It was as though she’d been playing on the most famous court in tennis all her life. There were some nods to her family and coaches along the way, maybe a quiet fist pump here or there, but not much more.

How does she remain so cool? She goes back to her mindset in college, when she was mostly playing single matches against another team. There was no elimination or rounds, no working your way into a tournament, just one specific opponent on one specific day. That’s it.

“That mindset has definitely helped me,” Navarro said Sunday night. “Just being able to look at individual matches for what they are and not make them anything greater than that.”

Paul has tried to take a similar approach, especially when he was nearly out of the tournament on the third day and had to climb back from a two-sets-to-one deficit against Otto Virtanen, a qualifier from Finland.

He had played a similar match last year in the third round against Jiri Lehecka, a young and rising player from the Czech Republic. He lost the fifth set of that one and headed home.

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Fritz and Paul at the French Open boys’ final in 2015 – Paul won (Patrick Kovarik / AFP via Getty Images)

This time, he said, with a few more five-setters under his belt, he knew he didn’t have to do anything heroic or flashy. In a fifth set, tennis often becomes a battle of wills more than shot-making, as weariness sets in. Paul turned a tennis match into a mind game.

He tried to show Virtanen that he was ready to go all evening, especially between points and games, even if that isn’t how he felt. 

“I was kind of jumping around a ton out there,” he said.

“I didn’t wanna be jumping around.”

He will have to do more than jump against Alcaraz, the defending champion. He’s beaten Alcaraz twice, though never at a Grand Slam. Both play with a dynamism and athleticism that can make for tantalizing tennis. 

He figured this was likely the best chance of his career to get a Centre Court assignment, though he swore he didn’t really care. 

“If it’s Centre, then I’m happy. If it’s Court 1, I’ll be ready to play on Court 1,” he said. 

The tournament organizers put him on Court 1.

(Top photos: Getty Images)  



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