Of all the young up and coming players who’ve made waves in the last year — from Nick Kyrgios to Alexander Zverev to Borna Coric — none have impressed me more than 20-year-old Frenchman, Lucas Pouille.
Pouille’s is a name rarely brought up when discussing young guns; hardly a junior sensation, the Frenchman peaked at No. 23 on the ITF rankings. Now ranked No. 136 on the ATP circuit, the Frenchman is yet to announce himself in the way of a Kyrgios or a Coric. He hasn’t beaten Rafael Nadal, nor has he reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. He hasn’t even cracked the Top 100.
But make no mistake, this kid can play. Outside of Roger Federer (yes, Roger Federer), there is no player in recent memory with a sounder technique at just 20 years of age. He executes the fundamentals of every stroke at an absurdly high level. From the back of the court, his ground game is perfectly sized, fluid, and easily repeatable. It is rather appropriate that Pouille has been sporting Federer’s clothing line this week in Auckland, as his strokes from the back of the court – particularly off the backhand wing – possess a certain level of effortlessness that bears an uncanny resemblances to the seventeen-time Grand Slam champion. Pouille’s wonderful coordination between racket and body facilitates this ease with which he hits the ball.
Pouille prefers his forehand in rallies, but his backhand is simply unbreakable. Under even the closest of scrutiny, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a single thing wrong with the stroke-production — we’re talking about Novak Djokovic-like technique from that side.
The most developed aspects of his game are his serve and return. He can pack a heavy punch off the delivery, vary pace and spin, and hit a ton of spots in the service box. Off the return, Pouille’s clean and simple mechanics makes it easy for him to take an opponent’s serve early and send the return for a ride. His effectiveness off the return was well displayed in his victory over Ivo Karlovic at the Paris Masters last year, where he the big-serving Croat three times in a stunning 6-1, 6-4 win.
But as with any player, the Pouille doesn’t come without a few flaws — otherwise he wouldn’t be ranked where he is right now.
For starters, going back to his otherwise perfect backhand: he needs to be more aggressive off that wing. He picks his spots very carefully off that side, even though it is infinitely less susceptible to a technical breakdown. While it shows signs of maturity that he can maintain a high degree of patience off that wing, he’ll have to start taking more risks as he rises up the rankings.
If there is a distincthole in Pouille’s game, it lies in his movement and defense. Pouille moves pretty well, but from someone who stands at 6’1″ and is only 20 years old, I’d like to see him develop a bit more speed and quickness about the court. As far as his defensive capabilities are concerned, this goes hand in hand with his movement issues. If Djokovic moved around the court like a sloth, his ability to get to more balls would obviously be sacrificed; his ability to stretch and retrieve in the open stance would also be comprised. Pouille is not going to put every ball back into play to begin with so implementing more advanced defensive mechanisms are well and truly down the road for him. Increasing his anticipation during rallies would be a more immediate fix.
Stamina and physical resilience are also big unknowns for Pouille. He has played just one three-set match at the tour level and has never played a five set match at all. Being successful on the ATP World Tour mandates that players be able to conquer physical and mental challenges throughout the course of a match, tournament and season. Whether Pouille can do this remains to be seen.
I first saw Pouille play against Sam Groth in the qualifying tournament of the 2013 Australian Open. As someone who is an ardent believer that a strong technical foundation is the stepping stone to success in this sport, I was instantly taken aback by Pouille’s on-court assets. My opinion of Pouille has only grown since that day.
So what should you expect from Pouille in 2015 and beyond?
Big things. Very big things.