Emmanuel Planque: "Lucas Pouille is developing fast"
Emmanuel Planque has been Lucas Pouille’s one and only coach since the player joined the professional ranks in 2012. The French Tennis Federation coach, who worked previously with Michaël Llodra and Fabrice Santoro, spoke to rolandgarros.com about his young charge. An educator on and off the court, Planque discusses their relationship, the work they did together in making the transition from the juniors to the ATP Top 20 and the lofty ambitions they both share.
What kind of player is Lucas in training?
Lucas is 22, so he’s still young and he’s still learning. In that sense, coaching remains a very important part of his quest to reach the highest level. He’s done a lot of work on the physical, tactical, technical and behavioural side of things, but he’s still got a lot left to do. He’s part of the young generation and he relates to time in a slightly different way to me. With him everything has to happen right now. He lacks a little bit of patience, and he wants things to move fast. It’s hard for him sometimes to get his head round the idea of repeating things, though he realises now that it’s necessary, that it’s part of his learning process. If you want to achieve big things on the court, in what is a tough environment emotionally, you have to find a level you can rely on in training, where the context is a lot more stable.
So that things become automatic?
Exactly. And you have to repeat things over and over to make that happen. So when we’re training and we don’t have a competition on, we just repeat and repeat things, and we spend a lot of time on the court. We’ve really been working on his serve – up to 200-300 serves a session. That’s something new. We didn’t do so much before because we were a little scared of him picking up an injury. What we’ve done, though, is some preventive work so that he’s able to handle it. Improving his serve, both the first and second serve, is key to him making progress. It’s not the only important thing obviously, but it’s an important factor.
Lucas is a player who’s capable of spending a lot of time on the court. He was doing up to six- or seven-hour days in pre-season in Dubai. He’s understood the need to work hard and to work well. We’re really trying to keep an eye on him and make sure he’s meticulous with the really simple things. We set specific technical objectives and get him to stick to them, never let go.
Has he changed much from the teenager you took under your wing?
He was a junior. He was 18 and he’d yet to make his debut on the pro tour, so he still had all the habits he’d picked up along the way. I laid down a few guidelines, but he took them on board pretty quickly, and I’ve not had to give out too many instructions. On the technical side of things, Lucas has been intelligent enough to make changes because he realised the things he was doing didn’t really fit in with the demands that the top level makes of you. I’m thinking in particular about his returns of serve, where he took the racket back a long way on both sides. When you arrive on the Tour and you get players serving very fast or you want to step up and attack the second serve, you have to have the technical ability to be able to do that. So what we’re working on is being compact, on the ability to hit the ball early, on keeping racket trajectories pretty simple. We’ve really focused on his footwork, how he uses the racket, his net play, finesse shots and sliced backhands. You can see that on the court. He’s playing with more finesse, and he’s become more inventive as a result.
Lucas Pouille and his staff: Pascal Valentini, physical trainer since 2015; and Emmanuel Planque, tennis coach since 2012
You’ve coached a few top French players: Michaël Llodra, Fabrice Santoro and Guillaume Rufin. Have they got anything in common?
Fabrice was born in 1972, “Mika” in 1980 and Guillaume in 1990. They’re players who belong to different generations, though Lucas is obviously a bit closer in age to Guillaume. Communication has changed so much, even between a player and his coach. I hardly ever texted with “Mika” for example. It’s a new way of communicating. You have to make use of it and move with the times. Communication, briefings and debriefings are the essentials, the bedrock of every story. Players are all different, though. It’s always up to the coach to adapt to them and find a way of communicating, to get messages across, to motivate them and get them to lose their inhibitions sometimes. You come up with a new equation every time in trying to find different solutions. Players don’t all feel the same emotions, at least not in the same situations. They don’t all react to the same words. It’s a question of trying to find the words that will get something out of them. You can’t ever just go and do the same thing twice, though there are fundamentals, basic foundations that apply in all these cases: being consistent in terms of the effort you put in, the ability to surpass yourself or at least to develop that ability. When all’s said and done, though, every player is very different. So you just have to adapt, which is also one of the great things about my job.
"When I go to coach him in November/December, I leave my family behind in Paris and make myself 100-percent available for Lucas"
You talk about being uninhibited. Lucas seems to be very strong mentally. He seems to thrive on adversity and pressure. Does he still feel inhibited on the court?
It’s happened to him. It happens to him and it’ll happen again. It’s part and parcel of this sport. Being good at it is all about the little details. You have to find the ability to get on a good emotional wavelength so that you can make the most of all your armoury. For my part, I do more coaching now. My role’s a bit special, because I’m a trainer. But now that he’s getting closer to the very top, there’s coaching involved too. It’s the mental side of things that helps you make the most of the resources at your disposal. Getting him to feel uninhibited is my everyday job.
Lucas moved to Dubai in 2015. What’s changed as a result of that? What’s your view on it?
The whole thing came about when Roger Federer invited us to go and train in Dubai in February 2015. We had a good time with him and Lucas loved the place. He wanted to go and train abroad in winter and I think that’s important. With all the Grand Slam tournaments racing to put roofs on, there’s a tendency to forget that tennis is an outdoor sport. The Grand Slam tournaments, which are the ultimate goal in tennis, have always been played outdoors. When you’re training as a youngster you have to play outside a lot. If you can play consistently outdoors, in variable conditions, there’s every chance you can be consistent indoors, when the conditions are more stable.
So Lucas made the decision to go to Dubai for the training conditions first and foremost, and then also for tax purposes. If he had wanted to go somewhere that was simply better tax-wise then he would have gone to Switzerland like everyone else. He wouldn’t have been so far away from his family, his brothers and his friends. Leaving for Dubai was a very big decision in terms of his career and his performances. If I had to sum up the move, I’d say that it’s a brave decision that’s made him stronger. And it’s had an indirect effect on me too. When I go to coach him in November/December, I leave my family behind in Paris and make myself 100-percent available for Lucas. I don’t have any time or family constraints. I just have my professional life and I’m available virtually round the clock. It’s changed things for him and for me. It’s not that great on a family level but it’s easier on a professional level. We’re totally committed to what is a process of improvement.
Life in Paris was comfortable for you. It must have been a very difficult decision for you personally.
I always try to stop myself getting comfortable, because it’s counterproductive. I like to get out of my comfort zone, to question myself and explore new ways of being better. Obviously, it was a big decision. I had to really think it through because I’ve got a family, and to leave them at a time when I’m normally at home is not easy. It was a professional choice. We want the same thing: for him to push himself to the very limit. When we started to work together, we made a kind of pact. I could have broken off the agreement but I didn’t want to because there’s a deep mutual respect between us. I think he has confidence in me and I have confidence in him. We want to go as far as possible and to keep on progressing.
"I’m a trainer and my job is to help him progress. I’m also a teacher too, by nature, and I spend a lot of time with him. He’s also a young man and he hasn’t matured yet, but he’s getting there"
The word “confidence” comes up a lot in your relationship.
Yes, I’ve got confidence in him, as an athlete, obviously, but also as a person. I know his family, his friends, his background and his values, and it gives more meaning to what I do. I can’t do it with a player I don’t have any time for, who doesn’t have the same values as me. We’re like-minded, or rather we have the same ideas, motivation and ambitions. We want to work hard together, to progress and to win major titles.
Isn’t there a risk of getting too close to a player?
No, that’s just it. You can get really close and intimate, but everyone has their own space and there’s always a distance. It’s not an exclusive relationship. He’s got a father and I’ve got a son. He’s got brothers and so do I. I’m not his brother. We’re both where we need to be, and there’s a healthy distance. I’m a trainer and my job is to help him progress. I’m also a teacher too, by nature, and I spend a lot of time with him. He’s also a young man and he hasn’t matured yet, but he’s getting there. There’s not so much of an educational side to things now. That work’s already been done.
You’ve always been ambitious in terms of putting programmes together, aiming for Challenger qualifiers rather than Futures tournaments, and then more Tour qualifiers than Challengers. Is that strategy all part of the learning curve?
We’ve always had that approach, to come up with very ambitious programmes. I think that’s what you have to do, because if there’s one thing all the players I’ve coached have in common, it’s that: the desire to pitch them in at a higher level, if not a much higher level, at a very early stage. You learn an awful lot when you come up against the very best, even if you still don’t have the game to beat them. All the same, it allows a player to see what the very highest level is all about, the goal that they have to reach. Afterwards, obviously, it’s a question of planning things and finding the right balance in your programme. Going out and losing at the start of every week is not what you’re looking for!