INTERVIEW: Pouille combines French flair with Scandinavian cool

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  • Rising star: Lucas Pouille.

    Dubai is often described as a melting pot, bringing together all nationalities from across the globe – each of us finding our way to this culturally-diverse emirate via our own unique path.

    For French world No15 Lucas Pouille, his road to Dubai began via Roger Federer.

    The 22-year-old, voted by his peers as the Most Improved Player of 2016, was invited by Federer in February last year to train for a week here ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

    A few months later, Pouille decided to apply for residency, get an apartment in the Marina and – just as Federer has been doing for almost a decade – use Dubai as a training base throughout the year.

    While the impeccable tennis facilities and great winter weather have attracted many players to the UAE, it is the tough, hot and humid conditions that Pouille considers even more beneficial for him when it comes to training here, and he has previously credited the time he spent practicing in the Dubai heat for his improved physical state that aided him throughout his breakthrough 2016.

    Now a regular in the northern emirate, Pouille has been hitting with Federer on the courts of Al Qasr and Meydan over the past few weeks in preparation for 2017.

    On Thursday afternoon, the pair will be live-streaming their practice session (14:00 Dubai time) to give the world a glimpse at their preseason training block.

    Having spent a considerable amount of time with Federer on court, you’d think that being around the greatest player of all-time has become routine for Pouille but the young Frenchman insists that is far from being the case.

    “It’s still special and I think it will always be special even if I hit with him in 20 years. Roger is Roger and it’s always interesting and amazing to practice with him,” Pouille told Sport360.

    “To see the way he’s working and putting in the hard work. I think it’s always a great experience and I’m very lucky to have the opportunity.

    “What stands out the most I think is the way he wants to improve every time.

    “He always wants to be better, to work on something, to push his limits. Sometimes he’s going to hit (long), ‘it’s okay, I’m going to make some mistakes but I’m going to go for it, I’m going to practice hard and in the match it’s going to be good’.

    “So I think that’s the way he’s working and that’s unbelievable.”

    Pouille has enjoyed a sensational rise in 2016, rocketing up the rankings from as low as 91 last February, to his current position at No15.

    One of 12 Frenchmen ranked in the top-100, Pouille is the youngest of the bunch and his exploits this year came at a time where France’s main protagonists – Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon – have all crossed the 30-year-old mark, with few real prospects looking likely to take over when the quartet decide to walk away from the sport.

    Pouille not only sent out a warning signal of his potential, he squeezed himself right between them and is now the French No3 behind Monfils and Tsonga.

    In a year highlighted by a series of firsts, Pouille claimed the first top-10 victory of his career when he toppled David Ferrer in Miami – after saving a match point – then reached his first Masters 1000 semi-final in Rome, his first grand slam quarter-final at Wimbledon, made his Davis Cup debut, and finally claimed his maiden ATP title in Metz.

    Funny enough, his standout moment of 2016 was none of the above. It came when he upset 14-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal to reach the US Open quarter-finals in a four-hour clash that ended in a fifth-set tiebreak.

    There’s been a stereotype attached to French players that they boast more flair than substance, don’t work as hard as they should, and are mentally weak when it matters the most on court.

    Pouille, who has a French father and a Finnish mother, has proven multiple times this year that he does not fall under that category.

    “Honestly I don’t know, but it’s true that when you speak about a Spaniard, you say he’s a fighter and he’s going to run down every ball and try to put one more ball in the court every time. And when you talk about a French, it’s like okay, he’s talented, but he’s not going to fight hard or work hard. I don’t know if it’s true, I don’t want to judge anybody, but the only thing for sure is that I’m not those things,” he says.

    “I don’t know why I’m different. Maybe the way I’ve been educated. Maybe my two cultures, my mum is Finnish, my dad is French, so maybe that. But I think the main thing is the way I’ve been educated.”

    His coach Emmanuel Planque agrees. Pouille has won five of the six matches he’s played against top-10 opposition in 2016 and he’s come through some tight situations unscathed, like that marathon against Nadal in New York.

    “Mentally he’s different,” says Planque. “He’s French but his mother is from Finland, so he has kind of a Scandinavian state of mind. He can stay very cool in very hot moments like (Stefan ) Edberg, (Bjorn) Borg or (Mats) Wilander.

    “For me, mentally he’s a different player. He can find a lot of energy inside when it’s very very difficult, when you have to play four or five hours against top players. He’s able to give something more. Mentally he’s very strong.”

    But Pouille wasn’t always mentally strong. In fact up until last March, he admits he struggled with outside pressure and expectation and it wasn’t until he beat Ferrer in Miami that he felt things started to change for him.

    “Miami was the turning point,” he states clearly.

    “I realised that I had to focus on my game and to improve every day and not to worry about what’s going to happen if I win this one? Or what’s going to happen if I lose this one? What are they going to think of me if I lose, or if I win?

    “So just focus on my game, and try to improve every single minute you’re on the court, and I think that made a big difference.

    “That was always my main concern. ‘What are they going to think?’

    “That’s not a good thing, it was tough to deal with and now I’m okay with this. I don’t care if I lose what they’re going to think. I’m trying my best, trying to always do my best on the court, trying to win, then nobody can say a bad thing about that. You lose, okay it’s sport. I realised that this year.”

    Some of those losses were hefty ones delivered by Andy Murray, who beat Pouille three times in 2016, allowing him no more than four games in each of those encounters. Murray ended the season ranked No1 in the world, ending a stunning stretch of dominance by Novak Djokovic.

    “I was not surprised at all that Andy became No1. When I played him in Rome, I was thinking 90 per cent he will finish the year as No1,” said Pouille. “All of my matches against him were quite similar. I had a lot of opportunities on game points, couldn’t make it, then it was 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0… I was far to win, very far, but it was not as bad as the score line suggested.

    “It’s not like I had only three game points, I had like maybe 12 or 13 game points every time. They were interesting matches. It’s very good to see how good he is and what I have to do to win grand slams and to be No1 one day.”

    Pouille feels distinctly different today compared to 12 months ago. As one of the best players in the world at the moment, his goals for 2017 are understandably greater.

    “Now I’m preparing to win a grand slam and to win some great tournaments and that’s very different compared to last year,” he explains.

    “Last year I didn’t really know if I was able to do that. Today, I’ve made two quarter-finals at grand slams, won some good matches. So I think if I work harder then I have my chances to go far in those kinds of tournaments, semis, finals and why not win?”

    The higher the goals, the higher the expectations but Pouille wants to strike the right balance between setting lofty targets and relieving himself of pressure.

    “I’m not defending anything for sure, that’s not in my mind. What I’ve done, nobody could take it away. Now it’s in the past, I want to look forward. I’m very excited, I don’t want to put pressure on myself. I can’t wait to start the season, it’s enough work,” he adds with a laugh.

    “I want to step on court and play matches.”

    Pouille sounds and acts like a player wise beyond his years but his youthfulness shines through when he talks about his impatience to start the new season and return to competition. His coach Planque describes him as “quiet” and “simple” and while many players may get distracted by Dubai’s buzzing night life, that never seemed to be a problem for Pouille.

    “He’s living here with his girlfriend, he’s quiet, he’s not the kind of guy who’s partying all the time. He’s a kind of Scandinavian guy, he’s very chilled, very simple, not very interested in night life. Just sometimes going to a good restaurant and that’s it,” says Planque.