Rising star: Lucas Pouille hits the international stage
Because they are young and brimming with talent, and because their styles of play, careers or simply their natural affinities point to success on clay in general and at Roland-Garros in particular: Rolandgarros.com has picked out 20 rising stars - 10 young women and 10 young men - to keep a close eye throughout the year. Having previously been seen the next big thing in French tennis, Lucas Pouille has taken on a whole new international dimension in recent months. Is he a next big thing in tennis full stop? We believe he is.
For us, it’s clear. Let’s start with a quick recap of the facts. Lucas Pouille’s performances over the past few months are proof enough of the 22-year-old Frenchman’s new stature – of how he has passed from being the next cab off the rank in terms of French tennis, to a future star on the world stage. Having begun the year at No.78 in the world, he is entering autumn at No.16 – his highest ranking to date. Using other French players as a reference point, Pouille is making the kind of progress that Yannick Noah, Henri Leconte and Gaël Monfils achieved at a similar age. He is even 13th in the Race to London! And as he himself says, whilst not making it by any means an objective as his first season at the top draws to a close, it means that "mathematically speaking, the World Tour Finals is still a possibility".
In tennis, as we all know, statistics are not everything. But what do the figures say about Pouille? They show that he has recently moved things up a gear, having made more gradual progress in the past. At some point, everything slotted into place and started to gather speed. "It was Miami," he says. Having had a disappointing tournament at Indian Wells, he was on the end of some harsh words from his coach, Emmanuel Planque, and they certainly seemed to bear fruit at the subsequent ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Florida. He reached the Round of 16, scoring his first win over a top 10 player, namely David Ferrer, and has since racked up another four (Ferrer again, Richard Gasquet, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem). "La Pouille", as he is known in France, was off and running, going on to reach two Grand Slam quarter-finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, the latter seeing him win a fifth-set tie-break against Nadal. He has also made the final of an ATP 250 tournament (in Bucharest), the semis of an ATP Masters 1000 (Rome), represented his country twice in the Davis Cup (quarters and semis), and most recently opened his trophy account in Metz.
That first title came against Dominic Thiem, who is six months older than him and will no doubt be one of his main rivals in years to come. And as well as whetting his appetite, it illustrates the mental fortitude which he has taken on, and which is one of the main reasons behind his current run of results. "Getting my first title is great, but I’m not going to get carried away," he said immediately after the tournament. "It’s another step along the way. In terms of my goals, it’s quite a minor stage, even if I am very happy about it." Indeed, Pouille seems to be advancing step by step, stage by stage, his feet firmly on the ground. Success certainly looks unlikely to change his outlook.
Read more: Rising star: Dominic Thiem - going wild
A win over Alex Kuznetsov in the first round at Roland-Garros 2013 on his Grand Slam main draw debut (see below).
Humble, listening to and respecting others, and hard work are the words that seem to be used most often to describe Pouille. "He’s very simple, open and solid," says Eric Winogradsky who is in charge of top-level players for the French Tennis Federation. "He’s a good guy – and you can’t say fairer than that." These various qualities were drummed into him at an early age by his father Pascal and his Finnish mother Lena, then nurtured at the Loon-Plage tennis club where he is still a member, and honed at various centres around France. Indeed, he is still in contact with those who trained him as a 13 and 14-year-old. Planque took over four years ago with an excellent reputation (having coached Michaël Llodra in the 2000s, then Guillaume Rufin – another great French hope whose career was blighted by injury), and convinced Pouille that long hours of hard work would pay off, and that straight talking was almost as important.
Planque does not quantify progress in terms of results or rankings, past or future. He will more often be heard talking about "mastering the situation", and "going beyond your fears, your emotions and your physical limits". "Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today," says ‘Lucho’ of his coach ‘Manu’. Their relationship began under the auspices of the FFT, and then at the end of 2015, Pouille decided to move to Dubai, to "take the next step" and see how he compared with the other top players based in the Emirates. He set up his own team, with a physio, a conditioning coach, and of course Planque as the cornerstone.
Practice with Novak Djokovic at the beginning of RG16.
Though Pouille can come across as shy, particularly as he is calm and softly-spoken, he is very ambitious, as can be seen by the structure he has put in place in order to reach the top. "Lucas has known exactly what he wants for a while now," Winogradsky continues. "He’s quite hard on himself and that’s also the case with those who work with him." "The main thing is to be clear in your own head with what you want," Pouille adds. "No ifs or buts. If you want to get to the very top, you have to imitate what the top guys have done – there’s no magic formula."
Those whom he is looking to imitate include Andy Murray, with whom he practises in Dubai, and Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, with whom he has also enjoyed a few sessions, which have only served to make him even more of a hard task-master. "The first time that I trained with Stan, I was astounded by the amount of work he puts in," he says. "He does really long sessions. I was on my knees every evening, I couldn’t take it. Then the next day, off we’d go and do the same again. Manu and I have tried to draw on that." Indeed, Pouille stepped up his work rate last December during his pre-season training. "Four or five hours of tennis in a row, then the physical stuff at the end of the afternoon." And all this added effort soon began to pay dividends.
2012 : Galea cup champion (European summer cup U18), with Laurent Lokoli and Mathias Bourgue (coach: Pascal Lasserre).
Career to date
Pouille’s powerful hitting, mental strength and tactical ability have long been on the radar of the tennis world at large. Well before the lad from the north of France hit the world stage, seasoned observers and fellow players were sitting up and taking notice of the success he was enjoying at youth level. He was French individual champion in the 13-14-year-old (2008) and 17-18-year-old categories (2012), and played in the successful French team at the Winter Cup, the Copa del Sol and the Coupe de Galéa. The now world No.16 then hit the Futures circuit in 2012, winning two titles and making another two finals. The following year, he hit the headlines when he made his Roland-Garros main draw debut. As a wild card, he won his Grand Slam debut, defeating Alex Kuznetsov despite being only No.324 in the world at the time. "I’ll never forget that," he says. "I can still remember now exactly how it all played out."
A little over a year later, he once again made waves on French soil, this time at the BNP Paribas Masters, seeing off four players ranked in the Top 70, including Ivo Karlovic (No.27) and Fabio Fognini (No.20), to emerge from the mass of qualifiers and set up a marquee Round of 16 match-up with Federer. The Swiss maestro cruised to victory, as was to be expected, but he still had this to say in the press conference: "I liked his style of play a lot. And he’s nice, he’s polite. He’s a pleasure to be around." The ensuing months were the toughest of the Frenchman’s career as injuries halted his progress, but they at least underlined the fact that he had to be an absolute pro down to the last detail. Which he is certainly proving to be at the moment.
At the 2014 BNP Paribas Masters: ranked 176th, he won against Steve Johnson, Jarkko Nieminen (qualies), Ivo Karlovic and Fabio Fognini (main draw), then lost against Roger Federer in the last 16.
What can we expect from him this year?
Yannick Noah, his Davis Cup captain who was happy to give Pouille and Planque the benefit of his advice when they knocked on his door is 2015, describes him as "the player of our future". Nadal, who went down to him in the last 16 of the US Open this year after a four-hour thriller, is just as fulsome in his praise. "He has a lot of potential, can play all the shots and if he continues to make regular progress, he has some fine opportunities ahead of him. He’s 22, right? He’s in a good position to aim for the Top 10." And if Rafa says it, then that means that he has identified that certain je ne sais quoi that sets champions apart from the rest. But Pouille knows that, despite such kind words, he is not there yet (as he points out, "there are 15 guys still ahead of me") and has plenty of work still to do.
One thing he will admit to aiming for is winning a Grand Slam. "And if I should manage that, then the aim would be to win another". Plenty of people think that he can, Monfils among them. "Lucas is a lot better than Jo (Wilfried Tsonga) or me at the same age," the French No.1 reveals. And if that major were to come at Roland-Garros, on home clay, it would be the icing on the cake for a youngster who maintains that his win over Kuznetsov there in 2013 was the most important to date. He still has a long way to go, but true to form, Pouille is setting himself smaller goals. Step by step, stage by stage: "get among the top 16 seeds for the Australian Open", and "try to close the gap on the top 10 by the end of the year". If he were to manage that, then the sky is the limit for 2017 and beyond.
Follow him on Twitter: @la_pouille
Bonus: winner of the French tennis championship U14 (2008). Finalist: Laurent Lokoli.