The Case of Lucas Pouille

From the print edition of l’Équipe April 15 2015 by Julien Reboullet @djub22 page 19.

Out of action in March, mediocre practice Monday, winner over Dominic Thiem Tuesday: the twenty-one-year-old Frenchman is on the right road. He challenges Rafael Nadal today.

If ever Lucas Pouille were to provoke a Big Bang event in Monaco by becoming the first Frenchman since Olivier Mutis in 2004 to defeat Rafael Nadal on clay, it would be a completely crazy exploit out of the deep, deep blue. A story of reversing a tendency at the speed of light.

As recently as Monday, the young twenty-one-year-old, just arrived from the indoor Saint Brieuc Challenger tournament – where he lost in the semis to Nicolas Mahut – and who hadn’t played a match on clay in eight months, wasn’t attracting much attention in the stands of the Monte Carlo Country Club after a poor practice session. “It’s simple. He played 1-1 against the number 300 or so ranked Frenchmen,” smiled Emmanuel Planque, his coach, yesterday noon. Smiling because his player had just left the court a winner over Dominic Thiem [6-4, 6-4]. Yes, Thiem, the Austrien who had just played a quarter-final in Miami and is ranked 44 in the world.

That kind of reversal in the space of twenty-four hours deserved the kisses exchanged between player and coach just before they got back to the dressing room. One would almost swear the two pairs of eyes shone just a bit. “I felt the emotion in Lucas,” admitted Planque.

“Interning” with Federer

The success will almost propel his student into the top 100 Monday [he’s now 108, his best ever ranking] A big first for the Northerner. “That barrier preoccupied him, as much because it gives him direct entry into the Slams as  for its symbolism. We brand our players to much in France by telling them, ‘you’ll be a pro when you’re in the top 100.’ Being a pro is more than ranking. It’s an attitude, a relationship to your profession.” Pouille has never been caught out on that score. The baby-faced, blue-eyed boy speaks in a quiet voice in front of the microphones. He’s serious, poised, thoughtful. He knows where he wants to go. And getting from a three-digit ranking to a two-digit is far from being an end in itself. Getting to one digit would closer.

2012(January) – Reaches his best junior ranking of 23
2013(May) – Wins his first round match against the American Alex Kuznetzov, loses in the second round to Grigor Dimitrov
2014(October) – Defeats Nieminen, Karlovic and Fognini to reach the round of 16 at Bercy, where he loses to Federer
2015(January) – First ATP 250 semi-final (Auckland) then an excellent first round at the Australian Open, losing to Monfils 7-6,6-3,4-6,1-6,4-6

The Planque-Pouille duo’s path has almost been like laying bricks. Step by step with precision and caution [see box]. Example: at the end of February, there was an inflamed tendon in the player’s right shoulder. “We treated it with the utmost care and seriousness. Pouille didn’t even wiggle an ear in March. And the tendonitis disappeared.

And if he becomes the 71st Frenchman to get into the top 100 in the forty-two years the ATP rankings have existed, he’s owe a bit … to the Swiss. At the end of 2013 and 2014 Pouille camped out for a week in Lausanne to prepare with Stan Wawrinka. Last February, just before his shoulder problem, he was in Dubai spending a week training with Roger Federer. “Hitting with them is amazing, even though you can’t really quantify what it brings,” says Planque. “You have to realise that there’s a bit of an incestuous side to the CNE (National training centre at Roland Garros). It’s difficult to get into from outside. So it’s important to look elsewhere. And with these guys who have won a Slam, there’s a difference in their concept of playing, in the way they train. What was most noticeable? The extreme precision of Federer and the team around him. It was six hours a day! Two hours of tennis in the morning, two in the afternoon and then two hours of physical training.” Pouille adds: “Realising that I could win a set here and a set there against players of that level, it could help me. If I train with them, it’s also to see how they work.” An experience that can also help demystify (a bit) the fact that he’ll be facing Nadal today? “In any case, he can’t be a spectator,” says Planque. “He’ll have to be extremely aggressive. Show Nadal with his attitude and his tactics and his intensity that he’ll need to work hard.”

And what if …

Translated by MAN

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