Until Wednesday morning, Australian Open 16th seed Milos Raonic was on song. With an entirely one-sided win over fourth seed Alexander Zverev, the tall Canadian was firmly in the driver’s seat from the get-go, and pushed quickly against a last-minute final set fight from his younger counterpart.
Wednesday, however, was quite a different fight. Up regularly against a number of NextGen players — in fact, having begun his Australian Open campaign with a win over Nick Kyrgios — Raonic looked to be the firm favourite. Despite having struggled with injuries in the recent past, he was perhaps unequivocally expected to win.
But for the efforts, of course, of young Frenchman Lucas Pouille, who put a spanner in the works and took a strong, convincing four-set win after Raonic attempted to pull back in the third. It was not, perhaps, that Raonic looked weak in any way, but that Pouille had laser sharp focus; focus that he lost a little, perhaps, at a few points in the match but quickly regained. Interestingly, in 2016 — Pouille’s best year for Grand Slams so far — the player was in fact dispatched from the Australian Open in Round 1 by Raonic himself. It was, perhaps, Pouille’s way of avenging himself.
For Pouille, the last few years have not been particularly easy. Only a few years ago, the young Frenchman could be seen in hitting practice with Roger Federer, but this year, the 24-year-old started his season in what can only be described as poor fashion. Seeded sixth at the Sydney International, Pouille tumbled out in straight sets in the first round to Andrey Rublev, prior to which he played the team tennis Hopman Cup - where he lost all three of his singles rubbers.
Despite the player having achieved strong Grand Slam finishes in 2017, Pouille’s wins against players in 2017 can only be described as very narrow, uneasy, and hard-fought. In spite of this, however, he became the only player to win a title on each playing surface. While Pouille has not struggled with injuries, inconsistencies have repeatedly done him in — down, in large part, he has suggested, to the mental rigours of the game.
The latter half of 2018 saw quite the slump for the young Frenchman, who over the entirety of the season had eleven wins. It was a far cry from the youngster who, only two years earlier, had caused the ouster of Rafael Nadal from the US Open in the fourth round. His lacklustre season last year also meant that he quickly dropped from his career-highest No 10 ranking to now, 31st on the ATP singles standings. Pouille has a strong all-court game, is great at the net and has in fact taken out a number of big-name opponents, making it clear that talent is not what is lacking.
Towards the end of last season, Pouille admitted that his less-than-inspired performances were not to do with injury, but that he had lost the pleasure he once found in playing tennis — something that his opponent in the semi-final, Novak Djokovic, has mentioned on several occasions.
Could this be Lucas Pouille’s year at the Australian Open? While it seems difficult to fathom that the player will beat Novak Djokovic, who has been in blazing form of late, one might argue that having come so far is an achievement in itself. For Pouille, his persona, at least in the last few months, has come to resemble that of another champion — Andy Murray — and perhaps with good reason; towards the latter half of 2018, Pouille severed ties with his coach, bringing on former World No 1 Amelie Mauresmo — also Murray’s former coach — to his team. Indeed, Mauresmo was France’s only World No 1 tennis player in the Open Era, and coached Marion Bartoli to her only Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2013.
Under the stewardship of the 2006 Australian Open champion, Pouille has already appeared to transform mentally. In spite of having the odds stacked against him in almost every way, the young Frenchman looks in fine form to put up at least a bit of a fight against Novak Djokovic. Following his upset of Raonic, Pouille was quizzed by John McEnroe on his choice of a “female coach”. The 24-year-old quickly responded with "Men are coaching women, so why not the contrary? It's not about being a man or a woman, it's about knowing tennis and about having a good state of mind.”
The pair may only have been a team for a little over a month, but already, Mauresmo has done perhaps what was most crucial for her young charge: renewing his love for the sport both have made their lifelong careers. In the rigours of professional sport, where injury slumps and difficult opponents will come and go, that is truly the most important thing. 2019, and Amelie Mauresmo, have brought onto court a renewed Lucas Pouille — a more confident, focused sportsman — and a person who is once again, in love with the game.
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 15:54:43 IST