INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Until earlier this week in Indian Wells, former No. 10 Lucas Pouille hadn’t set foot on the match court since he lost to John Isner in the second round of Shanghai last October.
An elbow injury that, like most injuries, had already been a factor for awhile finally took him off the courts.
Just before Christmas, he announced that he wouldn’t be in good enough shape to play the ATP Cup or the Australian Open.
He has also missed Dubai, which is played in his back yard.
But he finally made it back for the Indian Wells Challenger this week, although it wasn’t a great return.
After a first-round bye, Pouille was beaten by American Noah Rubin, 6-4, 7-6 (5).
Now comes the big test, at a tournament in which he has never had much success.
One win in four attempts
Pouille has played Indian Wells four times. And he has won just one match, against Jan-Lennard Struff in 2018.
The 26-year-old Frenchman was just inside the top 20, at No. 19, when he went off the tour.
As he returns, he’s down to No. 58 and he’ll be unseeded this year. On the plus side, with the 96-player draw, the top 32 players have a first-round bye. So at least he knows he won’t have to face any of them.
Pouille hasn’t even had much of a chance to show off his new Le Coq Sportif duds. Long with adidas, his new deal with the iconic French company was announced at the end of January.
The early exit in the Challenger meant that Pouille could focus on practice this week. And he was out with coach Amélie Mauresmo Friday afternoon.
If there was ever going to be a man in the hot seat in tennis, it was the Frenchman who had to carry the torch as the careers of arguably the greatest crop of talent his country has produced inevitably waned.
And that is the lot of Lucas Pouille. At the moment, he is carrying it alone.
It’s exceedingly rare that a country can produce a cluster of top-10 players in the same generation.
The U.S. had Sampras, Courier and Chang. Canada may – some day – have Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.
Switzerland has had Federer and Wawrinka. Belgium had Clijsters and Justine Henin. Serbia had Ivanovic and Jankovic.
But the French had Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gaël Monfils and Gilles Simon – all as different from one another as can be, all reaching the top 10.
They haven’t (and likely won’t) pull through on a major title. But you can argue that having such a pool of talent, so visible every week, will do as much for the growth of tennis in your country as one great one.
Into that fray came … Pouille. No pressure, kid.
Just under a year ago, the then 23-year-old hit the top 10 for a brief moment, a few weeks after reaching the final in Dubai (without having to beat a top-20 player, it should be said).
The expectations are heavy. And the soft-spoken fellow is still learning to deal with them.
Other than in Davis Cup, Pouille defeated just one top-50 player the rest of the way (Philipp Kohlschreiber, No. 34). He lost to Denis (Kudla) and Dennis (Novak) and Yuki Bhambri. And he quickly fell out of the top 30.
In the offseason, he made a move that’s still considered radical in tennis: he hired a female coach. And so Amélie Mauresmo came on board.
There was an immediate bump: Pouille reached the Australian Open semifinals on the wave of an extremely friendly draw, before getting schooled by Novak Djokovic. But the tennis he displayed was a level up: bolder, more forward thinking.
He has only played one match since then, as he’s been struggling with a virus. And he opted not to defend his finalist’s points in Dubai, where he resides, but in Acapulco. And he withdrew from that event as well.
Currently ranked No. 22, he’ll drop about seven spots. But with basically nothing to defend at the two events at Indian Wells and Miami, with 2,000 points up for grabs, he can quickly make that up if he shows up healthy, rested and fit.
Currently at a career-high No. 20, the player from Georgia (the country, not the state) came on quietly in 2018 at a relatively mature age.
He played great tennis at the right times, winning his first two career titles at 500-level events.
Basilashvili went from the qualifying to the title in Hamburg. And then in the fall he won Beijing, traditionally a high-quality tournament. He dropped just one set that week, beating Juan Martin del Potro in the final. All of that without cracking much of a smile.
The Georgian also won matches on the grass (although not at Wimbledon), and reached the fourth round of the US Open before falling to Rafael Nadal. So in his 12th year as a pro, he showed he can win regardless of where he’s playing.
Seeded at both Doha and the Australian Open, Basilashvili lost to Djokovic in Doha and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Melbourne. He will save energy this year by not having to qualify for the big tournaments. But he also will have to prove himself all over again. Losing early in Sofia (to No. 180 Daniel Brands in a match he appeared to be at less than 100 per cent) and to Marton Fucsovics in Rotterdam isn’t a great start.
No picnic in Dubai, where he drew Karen Khachanov in the first round.
Even though the pro career didn’t really happen (after having been a top-50 junior), she remained fodder. This Aussie tabloid story chronicles her marriage to some Aussie actor/stand-up comedian dude her parents disapproved of so highly, they didn’t even show for the wedding. But they’re still going strong.
Hewitt-Shehadie and her brother even reunited on court at the Kooyong Classic this year, along with the Tomics and other brother-sister pairs.
Just another cautionary tale about what happens to the other siblings in a family when the parents are a little obsessed with the more successful one. But things seem to have turned out well in the end.
The French Tennis Federation consulted various and sundry on the crucial possibility of the personal coach of one player being the captain to all.
It’s hardly an unusual situation. Victorious Croatia captain Zeljko Krajan once coached Borna Coric even as he led the Davis Cup team. In Canada, Martin Laurendeau juggled (only somewhat successfully) the dual roles of his longtime job as Davis Cup captain and his new job as the coach of the up-and-coming Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
And it might not have been an issue, anyway.
Pouille, a decade younger than the finest French men’s tennis generation, has been the only one of the new breed so far to have had success at the top level.
He was firm and emotional in his denouncing of the “new” Davis Cup format. And his visible emotion during the trophy ceremony after Croatia beat France in Lille two weeks ago will remain engraved in the collective tennis memory for a long time.
Changing role of the captain
One wrinkle is that with the diminution of Davis Cup duties, the French Davis Cup captain has found additional responsibilities on his/her plate. In this case, the captain will be in charge of the men’s team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and also to mentor/oversee the up-and-coming prospects ahead of the 2024 Paris Summer Games.
As it happens, when the decision was made to make Mauresmo the first female Davis Cup captain in French history (in history?) and Julien Benneteau the new Fed Cup captain (not the first male Fed Cup captain in history), Pouille’s vote was for former Davis Cup stalwart Michael Llodra.
As it happens, Mauresmo worked with Llodra one year at Wimbledon. And the two are very good friends, sharing a love for wine among other things.
On his regular hit on RMC Sport radio, Benneteau said he was disappointed personally. He had been looking forward to collaborating with her on events like the Olympics, in their role-reversing roles. Benneteau said he wasn’t a potential candidate to replace her; he was sticking with the women.
Mauresmo was named last June – months ahead of time – as the successor to Yannick Noah. Noah announced that this year would be his last year leading the team.
Pouille and Emmanuel Planque, the French coach who has had a hand in the development of most of the French male players of the years (going all the way back to Llodra), split last month after six years.
Mother of two will juggle
Mauresmo was expecting and gave birth to her first child, son Aaron during her association with Murray. She also continued as the French Fed Cup captain.
The 39-year-old has since had a second child, daughter Ayla, who is 20 months old. She and her partner also have two dogs. It’s a full house.
According to l’Équipe, Mauresmo has committed to 22 weeks with Pouille.
Her stint with Murray raised plenty of eyebrows. In the Brit’s case, he was coached as a youngster by his mother Judy and has long been an advocate for equality on that front.
He made a serious statement with the hire. And he took a lot of flack.
“When it first came out in the press that I may be working with a woman, I got a message from one of the players who is now coaching. He said to me, ‘I love this game that you’re playing with the press; maybe you should tell them tomorrow that you’re considering working with a dog,’ ” Murray said in an interview with Elle Magazine last year. “That’s the sort of stuff that was said when I was thinking about it.”
Has there been a female coach on the ATP Tour since? There are barely any on the WTA Tour.
And here comes Mauresmo again, with more experience. As well, she’s in rather a more comfortable situation. She doesn’t to be concerned about making nice with male team members. And she doesn’t have to work – teach – in a second language she speaks but can’t be considered fully fluent in.
Rebound year for Pouille in 2019
The notable fall from the top 10 during the 2018 season was American Jack Sock. But Pouille, too, reached the top 10 only to struggle to win a match for chunks of the season.
“I think he found the ideal person to kickstart his career again,” Benneteau said on RMC Sport. “I also think that Lucas is sending a strong signal about his ambition by hiring Amélie.”
Pouille reached the top 10 after Indian Wells earlier this year, after a title and two finals during the first two months of the season. His results were up and down after that, and included a loss at the Rogers Cup in Toronto to Félix Auger-Aliassime, the day before the Canadian’s 18th birthday. He won just one match in his last five tournaments of the season.
With all that has gone on before, around, and is still to come in the post-mortem for this “final” Davis Cup final, the efforts of the 2018 champions may well be consigned to the back burner.
So let it be said, before anything else, that Croatia’s Marin Cilic is a sporting hero to his country. He is an elegant champion and a deserving one.
And the 30-year-old cemented his legacy by leading Croatia to a 3-1 victory over France Sunday in Lille.
He closed it out with a straight-sets victory over Lucas Pouille – a late substitution for Jérémy Chardy.
In six sets, Cilic did not allow his serve to be broken.
And combined with the effort of young countryman Borna Coric Friday against Chardy, he gave the Croats all they needed.
They hoisted the Cup for the first time in this tennis generation, the second time in the country’s relatively short Davis Cup history.
“This is a weekend from the dreams, it’s just incredible feeling to play like this in the final, without even dropping one serve in three singles matches. Even today , Lucas played a great match. The first set was really, really tough, probably just one point decided the tiebreak,” a serene Cilic said during an on-court interview shortly after the victory.
“We had a feeling that Lucas might be on the court. He didn’t have the best season of his life, but still he’s an incredible player, I felt it would be risky to put Jeremy in. AndI felt I might play him,” he added. “Still, he played in incredible match. I was just a little bit better, a bit composed, and just played an incredible match.”
Croatia’s first tie as an independent nation came in May, 1993.
It was an inauspicious, rather anonymous debut: a 3-2 win over Zimbabwe in a Group I Euro/Africa zone semifinal in Harare. The nation has only been in the World Group for 16 years.
Back then (as with the French and Belgians in 1904), it was a pair of two-man shows.
The Gorans (Ivanisevic and Prpic) squared off against the Blacks (Byron and Wayne). All four played both singles and doubles. Every match was in straight sets. And it was clinched by Prpic over Wayne Black in the deciding rubber.
Just 12 years later, unseeded, Croatia stunned everyone by beating Slovakia and winning the 2005 Davis Cup.
Although, when you look at the resumés of all the players pictured below, it seems not quite a shock as much as destiny in retrospect.
After a long season, Cilic had expended a lot of energy in almost blowing a 2-0 sets lead to Federico Delbonis, to win in five on opening day. He was then subbed in with Dodig for the doubles, which they won in three close sets.
On Sunday, looking to clinch it, Cilic went up two sets to love against Juan Martin del Potro.
But after 10 sets in about 48 hours, needing just one more set to win, he couldn’t close the door. And then Delbonis became a sporting hero back home in Argentina with a straight-sets win over Ivo Karlovic.
Karlovic had been out of the Davis Cup picture for more than 4 1/2 years, since a losing effort against those same Argentines in the 2012 quarterfinals. But he was pressed into service with Coric unavailable after knee surgery.
A “last” win for Croatia – on the road
Unless something drastically changes in the “new” Davis Cup era to begin in 2019, that turned out to be this fine tennis nation’s last chance to win the Cup at home.
But they did the next best thing – the co-equally good thing – on Sunday. They won it on the road.
“I think this team has done incredibly well through the year, and it’s because of the team that we made it to the final, it’s not because of a chance. Borna came into top form at the right moment and played incredibly well against the U.S., and again here,” Cilic said. “It’s not every day that you become the world champion. And for us it’s a dream come true, and for this nation.”
For longtime captain Zeljko Krajan, that 2016 defeat was tough to swallow
“It’s amazing that we finally crowned it with a victory after the experience of 2016. That was in my mind for a long long time after we lost it,” Krajan, his voice shaking, said during a post-match interview on court. “We are stronger for that experience, even though we lost it. It showed today on the court that Marin was just experienced enough. And you could see that he was mentally very focused, knew what to do.”
Krajan’s dream team came together
Some 25 years after that fairly anonymous debut in Harare, the team was led by Cilic and Dodig – two players of Croatian ethnicity born in the same town in Herzegovina, Medjugorje (and who now call Monte Carlo and the Bahamas home). One of the chair umpires for this weekend’s tie was the Serb Marijana Veljović. The world has changed.
“I say we have a dream team finally from the semifinals, Trust your players, and believe in something. We are a long time together, for seven years. They invested a lot of (the) year in Davis Cup. We all know what the format is, and how many weeks you had to skip throughout the year to play. Sometimes we didn’t always have a full team,” Krajan said.
“And finally we had it. They all gave themselves, and it paid off in the best possible way, winning this las – kind of – Davis Cup in this way. The quality was on our side from the beginning of the weekend, and in the end the quality prevailed.”
One of the best doubles teams on the planet staved off elimination for France in the Davis Cup final Saturday.
And now, captain Yannick Noah must make the toughest decisions of his tenure, in the final tie of his tenure.
Who to play on Sunday, as France tries to defend its title against a Croatian team that boasts two singles players ranked in the top 12 in the world?
The notable depth the French boast is being sorely stretched in this final. As many players as they have, the cupboard even seems almost bare.
And Noah’s selections – which ultimately have come down to his personal preferences – will be second-guessed for the ages if France can’t pull off a comeback in this final “true” Davis Cup final.
Mahut-Herbert get the job done
Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert came within a point of winning the ATP Tour Finals in London a week ago.
And despite the quick transition to the red clay, and a few nervy moments, they kept their nation alive.
The duo defeated the occasional team of Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) to give France its first point.
France remains down 1-2 after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (against Marin Cilic) and Jérémy Chardy (against Borna Coric) failed to even earn a set on Friday. Actually, they failed to even convert a break point.
Saturday was a bucket-list moment for Mahut, 37 in January. He’s 4-0 in doubles this year after being left off the (then) four-man squad for the final a year ago against Belgium.
The French team was favored going in. And even with a hiccup on the third set, and the failure to capitalize on a golden opportunity at 4-5, 0-40 on Pavic’s serve in the fourth as the crowd began to get involved, they stood firm.
But on Sunday, there remains no margin for error.
Tsonga? Chardy? Pouille? Herbert?
Interviewed on court after the match, Noah said there might be changes. He was going to speak to the team doctor, he said, because Tsonga was “slightly injured” when he played on Friday.
Choosing the 33-year-old for this final, despite his 11-4 career Davis Cup record on clay, was a crapshoot from the get-go.
In last year’s final, Tsonga lost to David Goffin. In the 2016 quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, he lost in five sets to Lukas Rosol after leading two sets to one. But mostly, he was rusty and likely not in tip-top form. Even during the week, there was reporting that he was favoring an injury.
Tsonga hadn’t played a five-set match since beating Canadian teen Denis Shapovalov at the Australian Open in January. And since then, he had been off seven months and had knee surgery. Since his return, he is 1-4 on the ATP Tour.
As well, his last match on clay was during the Davis Cup semifinal against Serbia in Sept. 2017.
As for Chardy, he had a nice run though Indian Wells and Miami. And he had a terrific grass-court season. But other than the grass, he hadn’t gotten past the second round of any tournament since April. He was not coming in with any sort of form after being bounced in the first round in both Basel and Bercy.
Whether or not anyone else could have done better against top-shelf opposition, of course, is an unanswerable question.
Whither Gasquet, Monfils and Simon?
They are the top three French players in the ATP Tour rankings at the moment. Although all of these former top-10 players are outside the top 25.
Gasquet begged off early in the process with an injury.
Extrêmement déçu de devoir annoncer mon forfait pour la finale. À fond avec mes coéquipiers pour aller chercher une nouvelle victoire 🇫🇷🇫🇷💪💪 pic.twitter.com/1ffQcJ0V5p
What about the other two? Well, the best way to term it is probably “captain’s decision”.
Simon, who has been playing club tennis the last few weeks and surely is in shape, just doesn’t seem to be Noah’s kind of guy. That’s been clear from the moment Noah returned to the captaincy early in 2016.
And yet, Simon did play for him in that return tie in Guadeloupe. He also got the call for the first round in 2017 – in Japan. He’s gone to Argentina, and Great Britain, and Germany … and hasn’t played in a home tie since 2012.
Noah’s description of their failure to communicate is that they have “different ways of working.” Simon’s impressive head-to-head results against the top top Croats (albeit not on clay) didn’t score as many points on the selection tote board.
Monfils and Noah: complicated
From the moment Noah returned as captain and decreed that the team would play its first “home” tie all the way in the French territory of Guadeloupe, it was touch and go.
There was no question of Noah leaving Monfils off the squad. His father hails from the island, and he’s a pretty big deal there. So he played. It was the first and last time he played under Noah.
There’s the story of Monfils in Croatia for the 2016 semifinal. Noah was counting on him, but his knee was barking. There was some sort of … conversation and by Wednesday, Monfils was on a plane home rather than in Zadar to cheer on his teammates on the weekend.
Not reliable, Noah says
Previous captains Guy Forget and Arnaud Clément gave Monfils a lot of latitude, Salliot writes. Early morning practices? Forget about it. He wasn’t ready to play on the Friday in the 2014 quarterfinal against Germany. But he brought home the deciding point on Sunday. Noah was convinced he could “manage” Monfils, get him on the team plan, even though he’d been well-warned.
Monfils has rarely disappointed in Davis Cup. He brought home a point in the final both in 2010 in Serbia, and against Roger Federer in Lille in 2014.
And he’s really good on clay.
You’d think Noah would agree he could use him right now.
First up on Sunday is Cilic against Chardy.
On the bench is Lucas Pouille, who is a Noah favorite but who was left on the bench on Friday.
Pouille won both his singles matches against Italy, on clay, back in April. And he beat Robert Bautista Agut on a hard court, in the same Stade Pierre-Mauroy, to give France a 2-0 lead in the semifinal against Spain in September.
He also happens to be ranked higher than Chardy, which is a luxury you have when you put a lower-ranked player in the lineup the first day.
Herbert raised his hand as available in singles. So did Mahut.
But there’s no point in saving Pouille for a fifth and deciding rubber, if you can’t get there. And you also would have the more explosive Tsonga (assuming he’s good to go) up against Coric in that one.
So it comes down to Pouille vs. Chardy against Cilic.
And if Cilic wins, Croatia wins the “final” Davis Cup.