'Wake up call' prompts Pouille renaissance

 - Alex Sharp

Former top-10 star bounces back from 'rock bottom' to close in on RG main draw

Lucas Pouille, 2e tour, qualifications, Roland-Garros 2023©Philippe Montigny / FFT

Rewind to Roland-Garros 2022 where Gilles Simon received a star-studded farewell presentation on Court Philippe-Chatrier following a heroic run to the third round - that was the moment that reignited the spark in Lucas Pouille's life.

"Nothing kept me going last year. In my mind I stopped playing tennis. Then seeing Gilles Simon playing his last matches in Paris, seeing the atmosphere, the emotions," said the Frenchman after booking his spot in the final round of Roland-Garros qualifying on Wednesday.

"It was the wake up call. Also, the press told me you'll never play in the Olympics in your career, it gave me the extra motivation to come back. 

"This year I started mentally fresh, I needed that. Hopefully I can have five, six great more years to get back to where I was, or close to that."

The former top-10 talent suffered a brutal right elbow injury in 2019, surgery followed in 2020 and then Pouille spiralled downwards due to a multitude of setbacks, injuries and mental struggles.

The current world No.670 was admittedly in a dark place.

"If you told me this 10 years ago, I wouldn't have believed you," admitted the 29-year-old Pouille.

"If I was told at some points in your career you're going to be feeling down, very lonely, at rock bottom, I would have said 'What the hell?'

"Now it's already been four years since my injury, then getting down mentally. Now it's all about playing for pleasure, enjoying being on court, enjoying practising and trying to reach my goal, which first of all is to get back into the top 100.

"Then to be able to play the Olympics next year (in Paris) would be amazing. It’s been so hard, but now that's why I appreciate all of this so much." 

Pouille punched his ticket to the final round of qualifying with a hard fought 5-7, 6-3, 6-0 scoreline versus Tseng Chun-Hsin in front of a raucous Court 14 crowd.

"The atmosphere was crazy, the French crowd is always behind us, trying to push us as hard as they can. It always gives me a lot of goosebumps," said Pouille, who takes on Austrian No.22 seed Jurij Rodionov on Thursday.

Lucas Pouille, 1er tour, qualifications, Roland-Garros 2023©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

"I'm very proud to get through, to have a chance to pay the fans back again. They were perfect.

"The first round win (over Tomas Machac) was my most important match in four years. Playing at Paris, at home, with all this crowd. I have to embrace it."

A career-high No.10 ranking, a 2019 Australian Open semi-final appearance, even being the 2017 Davis Cup hero are all cherished by the 29-year-old, but Pouille says he hasn't experienced raw emotion like this on a tennis court. 

"For sure, these moments are sweeter. I was telling myself in the match, 'Wow, I don’t have the feeling I'm in qualies, I have the feeling I'm in Roland-Garros'," continued the home charge.

"The only change was not playing best-of-five sets, otherwise it's the energy, the focus, it was the same, like old times. The victory tastes perfect."

Wolf mentality

Pouille's perseverance was hailed by fellow Frenchman Laurent Lokoli.

The world No.198 joined his countryman into the last qualifying hurdle with a similar comeback, reeling in Japan's Yosuke Watanuki from a set down.

"I've known Lucas since we were kids. We won the under-16 European Cup together, came second in the under-14 World Cup together," revealed the 28-year-old.

"At some point we have taken different paths, but he was someone I used to look up to when he was top 10.

"Then I heard what happened to him, which can't have been easy. I'm very happy for him to be back, playing great again. I wish him to be back where he belongs, with the top players of the world."

Laurent Lokoli, 2e tour, qualifications, Roland-Garros 2023©Clément Mahoudeau / FFT

Lokoli hopes to replicate his successful qualifying run at the Australian Open in January as he set up a third-round clash against Italian youngster Flavio Cobolli.

The Frenchman is ready to hunt down his main draw prize.

"The wolf is my totem animal, it suits me. Sometimes he can be kind with his family, sometimes he can be cold, when he has to," mused Lokoli.

"Sometimes he has to go hunt, fight for his family. It's many things. I have a tattoo of a wolf on my hip. It's part of me now, it's part of my mentality."