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.
Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was injured after an attack by a knife-wielding burglar at her home in the eastern Czech town of Prostejov, her spokesman said on Tuesday.
“Petra Kvitova was attacked in her flat this morning, it was a random crime, nobody was going to attack or rob her as Petra Kvitova,” spokesman Karel Tejkal told AFP.
“She was injured with a knife during the attempted burglary. Her life is not in danger, she is being treated by doctors,” Tejkal added.
The Dnes daily said she had cuts on her left hand. Tejkal said the burglar was still at large.
The 26-year-old Czech tennis star, the Wimbledon champion in 2011 and 2014, is also recovering from a fatigue fracture on her foot which has ruled her out of the Hopman Cup starting on January 1.
The world number 11 was hoping to start next year at Sydney on January 8 to warm up for the Australian Open from January 16.
Founder and managing director Mahesh Bhupathi believes the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) still has a chance to return to Dubai next year but owners of the UAE Royals team will have to figure out a way to make it financially rewarding.
A compact third edition of the IPTL wrapped up in Hyderabad on Sunday after what had been a difficult time for the organisers.
Bhupathi explained how a string of problems stood in the league’s way in the build-up to its third season and resulted in a three-stop IPTL, compared to five last year, and a long list of high-profile absentees.
Dubai and Manila were axed from this year’s IPTL, while the team representing the Philippines did not take part.
Instead, four teams – champions Singapore Slammers, runners-up Indian Aces, UAE Royals and Japan Warriors – took part in the action from December 2-11 in Saitama, Singapore and Hyderabad.
Superstars who took part in previous editions but did not compete this month include Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, and Andy Murray.
The host city for the India leg was relocated from New Delhi to Hyderabad, with the official schedule and team rosters of the league made just eight days before the matches kicked off.
The late announcement had prompted rumours that the IPTL would not take place and Bhupathi admits it was touch and go there for a while.
“We had the challenges that we have had to deal with but our main goal was to make sure the season stayed afloat and we were able to achieve that,” Bhupathi told Sport360.
“Now there’s the opportunity to bounce back next year. I think what we’ve been through throughout the season this year, it would have been close to impossible (to stage the league) and yet we were able to get that done.”
A concept initially described by the likes of Djokovic as a “revolutionary” idea, the IPTL faced numerous roadblocks in 2016.
“We just had a bunch of different challenges that kept coming at periodic times, which was the most frustrating part,” admits Bhupathi.
“At the beginning we had an issue with one of the owners, the Japanese owner who was based out of Singapore, he went through financial difficulty so he wasn’t able to keep his commitments to us.
“Then when that went, we had some issues trying to move Manila to Kuala Lumpur and then finally the demonetisation of the currency in India, so every few months we felt like we were getting hit by something so finally we decided to downscale to three legs, and just get it done and keep it alive.”
The owners of the Dubai-based UAE Royals team, Neelesh Bhatnagar of NB Ventures, and Sachin Gadoya of Musafir.com, have had a rough time attracting attention and bringing in revenue during the first two seasons of the IPTL, despite the presence of big names like Federer, Djokovic and Murray.
This year, the UAE Royals participated in the league but Dubai did not host any matches and while the future remains uncertain regarding the return of the IPTL to the Emirates, Bhupathi is hoping the showpiece comes back to the Arabian Gulf.
“The Dubai owners are very supportive of everything,” said Bhupathi.
“They’ve been having their own challenges internally in Dubai with the revenues. You were there last year when we had Roger playing Andy and we had like 300 people in the stands.
“So that in itself is a different challenge to deal with because if the revenues don’t support the cost then everybody suffers.
“So they want to explore UAE of course if it makes sense for them financially. But if they have to move the franchise to another city, they are open to it. But personally obviously IPTL is based in Dubai so we’d like to see if we can figure out how to keep it there.”
He added: “I think in general Dubai, they just have so much going on all the time, events, concerts and plays, so much going on all the time so the crowd are kind of spoiled for choice and obviously the Dubai Open is the premium event over there which people have been used to for 25 years.
“So it’s tough to come in and create something else. It’ll take time. But time is also not a luxury at all times.”
The economic troubles in India forced Bhupathi to ask Federer and Williams not to participate this month as the league would have been unable to fulfil its financial commitment towards them.
The 42-year-old says decisions are currently being made regarding the format for next year’s edition and once such details have been settled, he will begin negotiations with all the top players to return.
Sticking to a shorter version of the IPTL remains a possibility.
“We will decide soon. But right now I think the players were happy with the fact that we did three cities, so the travel was cut down. But obviously every owner wants a weekend as well, so we’ll figure that out pretty soon,” said Bhupathi.
Some feel the IPTL’s targets were too high to begin with and that perhaps starting small and growing gradually should have been the way to go. But Bhupathi doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we really want to spend time on hindsight. We started something that was never there before so obviously we didn’t know what right or wrong was. I think we’re definitely open to evolving. If it’s doing it in five or four or even one country only every year, we’re definitely open to evolving. I think it’s well-received by everybody; sponsors, broadcasters, and players and we want to keep it going. So evolving is definitely part of the growth going forward,” he explains.
While the IPTL relies on featuring the biggest names in the sport in order for it to succeed, Bhupathi says the goal is for the league to eventually have its own following, irrespective of the line-up.
“Obviously the first few years we need the players wearing their names in the front before we can change it to the names in the back. It’s a process and I’m not sure how long it’ll take but that’s the eventual goal,” he said.