Inspector Jules Maigret has nothing on Lucas Pouille. This is a supreme French mystery which just took a positive and hopeful turn at the 2019 Australian Open. Now for the next leg of this page-turning drama: Will Pouille build on his run Down Under, or lose the plot?
Can you say with certainty that you know how this story will develop in 2019?
To be sure, the pro-Pouille case received a substantial boost in Australia. Amelie Mauresmo’s arrival as Pouille’s coach clearly paid substantial dividends in Melbourne. Of that there can be no doubt.
However, now Pouille has more of a target on his back after making his first major semifinal. The notion of an “enigmatic French tennis player” is one of the great redundant expressions found anywhere on the planet. What French tennis player ISN’T enigmatic? We have seen French tennis players make major semifinals but not use those runs as springboards to a higher level of consistency on tour. Recall Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon in 2007. So many people were hopeful that “Reeeeshard” would find his footing then and move into the tier just below the Big 3. Alas, it never happened.
Gael Monfils made the semis of the 2008 French Open. That run similarly did not lead to a new and improved Gael. It was an aberration more than an indicator.
This is what Pouille is fighting against, now that he has reminded the tennis world how gifted a player he truly is.
The extra layer of mystery attached to Pouille’s story is that after a few years of struggle and short-circuiting, he is almost 25 years old. He isn’t a young pup anymore (though he is at the high end of Andrew Burton’s “Generation Nick” and not at the low end of the much-maligned “Generation Grigor”). Whereas fellow Australian Open semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas is only 20, Pouille doesn’t have the luxury of an 18- or 24-month educational period in which he can learn the lessons of the Big 3 and then — once those icons are older or retired — expect to be The Man on the ATP Tour in the 2020s.
Pouille doesn’t have that same luxury of moving through ages 20 and 21, and still having time on his side in two years. Pouille is making up for lost time. Purely as a reflection of his talent, he should have had a first major semifinal a few years ago, so that his evolutionary process could have grown sooner rather than later.
If Tsitsipas needs two years to build his career (much as Roger Federer did after beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, just before turning 20), it will be seen as a natural and organic process of maturation.
If Pouille needs two years to improve to a similar degree, he will be 27 while his younger peers will be turning 22, 23 and 24, and shedding their training wheels. His window for winning big titles could become uncomfortably small.
Realize this simple point about the Australian Open: Pouille landed in the one quarter of the draw not populated by a Big 3 player. He landed in the Alexander Zverev-Dominic Thiem quarter and made the most of it. What will happen if/when he gets a Big 3 quarter of the draw at Roland Garros? That is just one of many questions Pouille might have to answer later this season.
Again: Do you know how this will turn out? Maybe Mauresmo Magic will continue to feed a career resurgence, but skepticism regarding a French tennis player has rarely been unwarranted in recent memory. It is up to Lucas Pouille to write a different story.
Georges Simenon would not disagree.