Tommy Paul outlasts Hubert Hurkacz to reach Italian Open semifinals

Tommy Paul of the United States' returns the ball to Poland's Hubert Hurkazc at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

ROME — Unlike most Americans who can’t find their footing on clay when they come to Europe, Tommy Paul feels right at home on the red dirt.

That’s because he grew up playing on the surface in Greenville, North Carolina.

“That was all I played on, even before going to play hard-court tournaments. The green clay, not the good stuff,” Paul said. “I’m comfortable on it. I’m really enjoying my time on it right now.”

Is he ever.

Paul beat ninth-ranked Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 on Thursday to reach the Italian Open semifinals and follow up his straight-set victory over defending champion Daniil Medvedev two days earlier.

It’s the best result on red clay of his career. At least at the senior level.

As a junior, Paul won the French Open boys’ title in 2015.

In the semifinals on Friday, the 16th-ranked Paul will face Nicolas Jarry, who rallied past Monte Carlo Masters champion Stefanos Tsitsipas 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.

The other semifinal will feature 2017 Rome champion Alexander Zverev against Alejandro Tabilo, who eliminated top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the third round.

Two Chileans — Jarry and Tabilo — will appear in the semifinals of a Masters 1000 event for the first time since the introduction of the format in 1990.

In the women’s semifinals, top-ranked Iga Swiatek extended her winning streak to 11 matches with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over U.S. Open champion Coco Gauff. Swiatek, who is attempting to complete the “dirt double” by winning the Madrid Open and Italian Open back-to-back, will face second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka in the final.

Sabalenka beat Danielle Collins 7-5, 6-2 to hand the retiring American only her second loss since early March.

It’s a rematch of the Madrid final.

“I’m happy to be playing so consistently because it means that we’re doing everything well,” Swiatek said. “So really proud of myself and of the team as well.”

Paul got in extra training on clay this season because of an ankle injury that cut short his hard-court season in March.

“My whole team has kind of tried to get me to not play early in the clay court season, to have a longer training block,” he said. “This year I was kind of forced to do it.”

Paul’s two coaches both have clay-court pedigrees. Brad Stine guided Jim Courier to two French Open titles and Hugo Armando’s best surface as a player was clay.

“(Armando) is the one who works with me a bunch on the dirt before starting the season,” Paul said. “Brad came down also to Boca. We worked on moving back a little bit, taking a step back, letting points kind of develop and settle.”

Paul broke the big-serving Hurkacz seven times but also dropped his own serve six times.

“My game plan coming in was, I got to get in as many of his service games as possible and try and get a couple of breaks. So on that aspect, I did very, very well today,” Paul said. “But my next match, I’m probably going to focus on holding serve a little bit more.”

Before beating Medvedev, Paul had never defeated a top-20 player on clay. Now he’s defeated two top-10 players back-to-back for the first time in his career — on any surface.

Paul is attempting to become the first American man to reach the Rome final since Andre Agassi won the trophy in 2002. Together with Gauff and Collins, there were three American semifinalists.

Rome is the last big warmup tournament before the French Open starts in 10 days and Paul has never been past the second round at Roland Garros — at the senior level.

Paul was better on the longer rallies than Hurkacz and twice came back from a break down in the deciding set.

Hurkacz eliminated record 10-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal in the second round.

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