South Carolina’s Paul Jubb reached the pinnacle of college tennis last season, winning the NCAA Singles Championship.
Now things get really tough.
After a successful run on the pro tour, which included a four-set match at Wimbledon, Jubb returns to defend his NCAA title.
Now he faces his greatest challenge.
“Now he is going to have the biggest target on his back,” South Carolina head coach Josh Goffi said. “Every guy here is going to want to beat the NCAA Champion. He is going to play everybody’s best tennis.”
Jubb, a 20-year-old senior, is ready after a wildly successful professional debut last summer and fall. After going 38-4 last season and becoming the first NCAA champion in program history, Jubb leaped to the pro tour, where he played more than 40 matches at different levels.
He started on the ATP Challenger Tour, where he went 3-3 and beat four of the top 160 players in the world, including No. 78 Andrey Rublev, who is now ranked No. 18.
That led him to London, where he fulfilled a childhood dream. Growing up in nearby Hull, England, Jubb had always dreamed of playing at the All England Club. After his NCAA run and strong pro debut, he received a wild-card invitation to play in the most prestigious tournament in the world.
“It was really, really good to be around all the top pros in the world and be in that environment,” he said. “Just saying that you are actually a player in that tournament and being able to go to the place and train and have all the access that you don’t have as a fan … it was a surreal experience.”
Though he lasted only one round, Jubb put up a fight, falling to No. 69 Joao Sousa of Spain 0-6, 3-6, 7-6, 1-6. He admits he was nervous playing on the biggest stage in tennis.
“I get nervous playing college matches,” he said. “I definitely had a bad start and that really didn’t help. I was able to get going a little in the third set but I never felt like I got going in the whole match. I fought hard and was able to take it to four sets, which was a positive, but I felt like if I was able to actually put my level on the court I would have a chance to win that match. But I didn’t, and that’s one thing that drives me, to get there again because I don’t feel like I did myself justice at all.”
The highlight of the summer was the four tournaments he played leading up to Wimbledon. He lost his first Challenger match to No. 208 James Ward of Great Britain, but bounced back to win a first-round match the following week. A week later, he knocked off No. 157 Egor Gerasimov of Belarus and No. 104 Thiago Monteiro of Brazil. The following week came wins over No. 109 Denis Istomin of Russia and the win over Rublev, who is now one of the top 20 players in the world, in qualifying matches for his first big ATP tournament.
“I was able to put together some really good performances back to back and show that I am good enough to compete at that level,” Jubb said. “That was a really good stand-out period of the summer.”
After losing at Wimbledon, Jubb dropped down to the ITF Futures Tour, the minor leagues of professional tennis where young players earn a ranking and learn to play at the pro level. He made it to the semifinals of his first tournament and then the quarters of his next.
Instead of returning to school in the fall, Jubb continued to play on the ITF Tour, making the semifinals three more times and winning his first pro tournament on Nov. 17 in Cancun, Mexico. He went 32-12 on the ITF Tour and ended the year ranked No. 494 in the world.
Playing on the ATP Tour was a valuable but humbling experience. Goffi, who helped coach him at Wimbledon, said Jubb realized how close but yet how far he is from being a full-time professional.
“There was some humility that was probably gained from it after the massive acceleration into this,” he said. “Coming off a 38-2 record last year in the spring and then having a great summer, you are full of confidence, because you just don’t know how to lose at that point. And that’s a real thing. Things were naturally flowing for him. But being on the tour consistently, it’s tough to win on a weekly basis. You are going to take your lumps.”
Though Jubb won some big matches and played most opponents tough, he also had some humbling losses, including a 6-2, 6-3 loss to American Taylor Fritz. But that was the point of the offseason — to not only learn how to win, but how to lose, on the pro tour.
“The whole purpose of getting him out there was, this is reality. You have established yourself in one arena, now you need to transition into the next,” Goffi said. “Out there, you may play the No. 1 seed first round, the very best player. You could beat the other 31 players in the tournament, but you played that guy first round. That doesn’t feel great. How are you going to recover from that? And you have seven days before you get to play again. That’s tough.
“Doing that for 35 weeks a year will take a toll on you mentally. That’s the next step for him as a professional. How is he going to take those? He showed a little grit this fall out there by himself.”
After losing at Wimbledon, Jubb began to make huge strides on the ITF Tour, learning how to win — and lose — and how to manage a grueling schedule while being on the road without coaches and trainers to guide him.
“After the whole Wimbledon run, he wasn’t mentally where he needed to be and didn’t necessarily have the respect for those levels,” Goffi said. “He realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m not ready. I thought it was going to be much different than it was.’
“It was a great lesson. He came back, hung out with us a little bit and put things in perspective and got his mind back where it needed to be. And just like the champ that he is, he always responds.”
Winning a pro tournament before returning to school was a huge step for Jubb, who enters his final season at South Carolina knowing the pro tour awaits and that he can compete with the best in the world.
“I was able to put some good tennis out on the court and get that title, which was a good confidence boost,” he said. “It was definitely a good period. I think I needed that and I think I got a lot of good progression out of that five- or six-month time period.”
Now he has some unfinished business to take care of before returning to the pro tour. He returned to South Carolina in January and won his first match of the season 6-2, 6-1 over UNC Charlotte’s Benjamin Wayand as the No. 16 Gamecocks started the season 3-0.
Jubb could become the first player in NCAA history to win back-to-back singles titles and the first college player since 1945 to win consecutive national championships. After his strong pro debut, he could follow in the footsteps of American tennis legend John McEnroe. After reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon at age 18 in 1977, McEnroe, who won seven Grand Slam titles, returned to Stanford, where he won the NCAA Singles title and led his team to the national championship.
Says Goffi, who played on the pro ATP Tour, “A lot of people will say that was one of the best decisions he could have made, because playing with that target on your back allows you to be great. Because at some point, if you want to be great, you have to get used to that pressure.”
That will be Jubb’s challenge this season, facing players that will be gunning for him. He will face some of the best in the nation in the SEC and Goffi estimates there are 8-10 players in the country who could beat him. He may face one of them this weekend in the Georgia Tech MLK event in Atlanta. Illinois Aleks Kovacevic was ranked No. 6 in the nation at the end of last season and took Jubb to three sets in the semifinals of the NCAA Singles Championships.
Goffi is teaching Jubb to embrace the challenge.
“You don’t hide from it. You accept it. You put it on the table and you deal with it every day,” he said. “You have to be even more on point. If you go out here and try to walk around on your high heels like you have done something, you will get slapped in the face and you will go south, and the recovery from there is a whole different story.”
That’s why Jubb joined the pro tour last summer, to not only get a head start on his professional career but to prepare for another NCAA title run and continue a path toward becoming one of the best players in the world.
“This is not about you getting ranked, it’s about building a player that can be top 100 in the world and better,” Goffi said. “Very few people ever get to have this opportunity that Jubb has given himself. Every guy he plays this entire spring will be shooting for him. He doesn’t get to go after anybody.
“You don’t get that as just a player that has been OK or been one of the best. You only get that when you are the best. That is an opportunity for him. That’s the way we are going to approach it.”
Jubb plans to take it one match at a time, just as he did last season when he battled fatigue, illness and grueling three-set marathons to reach the pinnacle of college tennis. When Goffi first met him four years ago, he vowed that, if given the chance, he would become the best.
Now he must do it again.
“I have always had that belief,” he said. “It’s been a really good process, literally starting from the bottom and working my way to the top. It’s been one good train ride so far, I just have to have faith because there is way more work to do yet. It’s nowhere near where I want to finish, I’ve just got to keep going and see what happens.”