Paul Jubb has taken his own path – now he must avoid the footsteps of Britain’s fallen talent, writes FINN RANSON
The NCAA men’s singles champion has the temperament to build on a Wimbledon golden ticket where so many others have failed.
“I was slightly crapping my pants really,” Paul Jubb tells me of that first set bagel to Joao Sousa in his Wimbledon debut. “I think it would have been a way different match if I would have got at least a half decent start.”
This unaffected commentary sums up Paul Jubb – or Paul Jubb from Hull as he has become known the past two months: honest, an endearing realist, but with a steely confidence that he belongs at the top of the game.
When the 19-year-old was awarded a wild card into Wimbledon a fortnight ahead of the Championships, my mind instantly – guiltily – went to the legion of forgotten British talent that have been given the same opportunity: Alexander Ward, Brydan Klein, Dan Smethurst, Oliver Golding, Alex Bogdanovic.
This golden ticket would prove to be their pinnacle. Save Alexander Ward, who qualified in 2017 ranked 855 in the world, none of them would ever qualify for the main draw of the singles. Ward, Smethurst and Golding have since all retired in their twenties.
But Jubb is somehow different. Speaking to him four weeks on from that golden midsummer evening on Court 17 he does not indulge any nostalgia. He thinks of it as an opportunity missed, not – unlike British hopefuls past perhaps – as just a dream achieved.
“I felt ready to own the court and put on a good performance,” he said.
“I’d been feeling really good in practice and playing with a lot of confidence. I don’t really know what it was [against Sousa]. I was so ready to get out there and just start swinging. I think that was actually the issue. I’d been feeling so good and all of a sudden I wasn’t when I started hitting. If I had lowered my expectations from the start then maybe it could have been different.”
Perhaps this self-assessment was too harsh. Jubb fought back valiantly and took a set off Sousa who would go on to the fourth round – his best performance at Wimbledon – defeating Dan Evans in an epic five setter along the way. There had been better signs still for the teenager at Eastbourne where he qualified for the main draw after defeating Denis Istomin and Andrey Rublev.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Jubb said of the last two months. “But after stepping out the first week I just realised that this is my level and I have every right to beat these guys. I felt like my game is big enough to beat these guys. It’s nice to have people noticing my progression.”
Recognition, after all, has been slow coming. Jubb’s journey has been a long, arduous one and success came relatively late in his junior career.
“I first started playing in my first year of primary school at the after-school tennis club,” he said.
“I then got asked to go to my local tennis club two minutes down the road and after a few years there I started to take it more seriously.”
On local coach Jonny Carmichael’s advice, Jubb moved to Nuffield Tennis Centre near the Hull docks where he began to cut his teeth in competition, including a few matches against this writer. He was quick, he was incredibly athletic, but he still had plenty of growing to do. Unlike Jay Clarke or indeed Kyle Edmund who played at Nuffield at the same time, he was not marked out in his early teens as one of Britain’s leading juniors.
“I remember having a conversation with Jonny when I had just turned 15 where I told him I think I can make tennis my career and do good things,” he said. “He had full belief in me. It was just something inside that I can be a good tennis player. Obviously that didn’t mean I was going to be the best tennis player in the country or whatever. It’s been a steady progression.”
Carmichael believed his every word; he started driving the teenager to tournaments all over the country. The following summer, Jubb won the U16 National Championships. Being able to have such a conversation that changed his young life is testimony to Jubb’s incredible force of will.
Making a go of it professionally is often a weird hushed taboo among British juniors, as if some wild fantasy to be ashamed of. The reality is that so few British players can say they have ‘made it’ it is a path yet to be normalised. It is still a dream reserved for unlikely one-hit wonders like Chris Eaton or Marcus Willis or the young proteges of the LTA.
Jubb agrees with me that his trajectory is something for the LTA to consider. As players’ retirement age at the top of the game continues to rise, perhaps talent identification needs to start later.
“I was never a top junior and I used to worry about having to be a top junior to then move on into the pros,” admitted Jubb, who never had a junior world ranking. “But you see so many top juniors not actually make anything of themselves. Juniors doesn’t actually really mean that much. There shouldn’t be too much pressure or speculation over whether you’re a good junior or not because at the end of the day that doesn’t mean you’re going to be the next big thing.”
The 19-year-old is a product of individuals – the faith Jonny and his grandmother Valerie had in him – not of the LTA system. And he draws strength from that: “It’s one of my main motivations to push myself and make the most out of everyone else’s efforts,” he put it.
Head tennis coach at University of South Carolina Josh Goffi came to Hull shortly after to scout the teenage talent. Jubb repeated that same conviction he had expressed to Carmichael a year ago: give me a chance and I will rise to the top. He signed a contract for a tennis scholarship with the University the following summer.
“It’s been such a breath of fresh air and a great experience,” Jubb said of his time in the States.
“A lot of players from juniors go into a full-time schedule and lose love for the game really quickly from going week in week out to different places and playing on the Futures tour. But since I’ve been there I’ve been to school and had a normal life while keeping my love for the game. I’ve got to experience the best of both worlds playing pro tournaments in the summer but then going back to college life. It’s been a really nice balance.”
No wonder Jubb has no plans to disrupt this lifestyle. He tells me he is going to play tournaments until the end of the year and then return to South Carolina for his final season and graduation.
The key for Jubb is to break through the Futures circuit quickly: for so many British hopefuls this has been their glass ceiling – not for lack of ability but for want of faith. That taste of Wimbledon has been a millstone around the neck of some British talent, too much too soon, perhaps, tennis’ Garden of Eden never again to be returned to, only an ideal to be fruitlessly pursued in ITFs in Kazakhstan or Algeria or Shrewsbury. For Jubb to go onto the tour now might well risk the same fate.
No doubt there is plenty of work to do. He talks about improving his netplay and getting more free points on serve. But having waited so long for the spotlight, Paul Jubb does not fear it – or long for it again. He might already have his biggest asset of all.
“There’s no need to rush out onto the pro tour,” he said. “I’m still developing. Just because I’ve had a bit of success now doesn’t mean I’m going to let it go to my head. Everyone’s on their own path and I feel like this is mine.”