Practice makes perfect for first-time Davis Cup hitting partners

July 16, 2016 01:22 PM

By Ashley Marshall,

Young Americans Tommy Paul and Jared Hiltzik are considered two of the brightest U.S. stars rising through the ranks. As part of their continued growth and development, the players are working alongside members of Team USA, getting first-hand insight into how the top pros in the world prepare for a top event.

Paul and Hiltzik (pictured above, front center) are with the U.S. Davis Cup squad competing this week against Croatia in Portland, Ore., serving as practice partners. They have been hitting with John Isner, Jack Sock and Mike and Bob Bryan and receiving coaching from U.S. captain Jim Courier.

“It’s been amazing getting to practice with some of the best players in the worlds, guys that have won 16 Grand Slams in doubles, some of the best players of all time,” Hiltzik said. “It’s a great experience for me and I’m learning a lot. It’s a lot of tennis, but I’m playing tournaments coming up so I couldn’t ask for better preparation.”

The experience is invaluable for up-and-coming players, especially for first-time Davis Cup practice squad members who are getting a taste of this level of international competition at a team event for the first time.

Many of America’s top Davis Cup players started as practice partners before representing their country on the full team. Isner was a hitting partner at the 2007 Davis Cup semifinal in Sweden three years before he made his Team USA debut. Sock, meanwhile, first traveled with the team as a practice partner in the first-round tie against Serbia in Belgrade in 2010, five years before his first match against Uzbekistan last fall.

Over the past two years, several top young Americans have served as hitting partners for the first time, including Taylor Fritz and Michael Mmoh (in Tashkent, Uzbekistan) and Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov (in Glasgow, Scotland).

“It’s cool getting to be so close to these guys and seeing how they prepare for a Davis Cup tie,” said Paul. “It’s definitely good to see how professional they are at a tournament and see their routines, so I can learn and hopefully try to learn to improve and play on the team. It’s great to learn from them.”

Paul is currently ranked No. 203 in the world, a few places below his career-high of No. 191, which he achieved this spring.

The 19-year-old New Jersey native started his season with consecutive clay-court Futures titles in Plantation, Fla., and Sunrise, Fla., adding to the Futures championships he won in Spain and Italy – also on clay courts – shortly after turning pro in 2015.

Paul came through qualifying to earn his way into the main draw of the Miami Open in March and played in the qualifying tournament for both Roland Garros in May and Wimbledon in June. He hopes this kind of experience practicing with Isner and Sock will send his game to new heights.

“I had a couple good results this year, but I’m looking to do a lot better,” said Paul, who won the 2015 French Open juniors and reached the final of the US Open juniors later that summer. "The US Open Series is coming up, and all the Americans love playing the US Open Series and we all want to end the year really well. I’m looking to get a lot of good practice and get to know the guys better. I’m just looking to work hard. It’s great to be challenging myself and working with the best in the world.”

For Hiltzik, working with the Davis Cup squad has only increased his appetite to improve. Ranked No. 596 in the world, the 22-year-old says he hopes he is able to represent America one day, and that opportunities like these will help get his professional career off on the right foot.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Hiltzik, who graduated this year from the University of Illinois, where he earned three All-America honors – only one of three players in program history to ever do so. “I get to dip my toes in this and it makes you pretty hungry. You want to be here competing in front of your country. I’m looking forward to it.”

The Illinois native won his first USTA Pro Circuit doubles title this year at the USTA Pro Circuit Collegiate Series event in Winston-Salem, N.C., and he reached the singles final of a $25,000 Futures event in Wichita, Kan., last month.

But those experiences have paled in comparison to staring down an Isner serve or rallying with the Bryan brothers.

“It’s unbelievable the energy that they have,” Hiltzik said of the Bryan brothers. “It’s truly awesome, every single point is played with so much purpose and energy, you learn a lot. And I’ve been practicing with John and Jack and it’s just a bigger ball coming at me. It opens your eyes to where you games needs to progress and that’s a good thing for me.

“It’s crazy, I was listening to Jack in the press conference about what separates the top three guys in the world from everyone else and it’s really small margins. It’s just consistency and consistently playing at that high level.”


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