The smile had left Lucas Pouille’s face for years and a plunge into depression, but a first victory in Roland-Garros qualifying, the first step towards his goal, the 2024 Paris Olympics, gave it back to him.
It was late Monday evening, more than 10:30 p.m., it was cold but the public had remained on the edge of the Roland-Garros stadium, around the semi-buried court N.14, to cheer the 29-year-old Frenchman, winner of the Czech Tomas Machac ( 127e) 7-5, 6-3.
“It’s the victory that makes me the most happy for four years … It’s been a long time,” relishes the former world No.10, who plays this week as 670th in the ATP hierarchy.
“When we start the tournament, we don’t want it to end on the first day (laughs). This victory gives me a lot of happiness. Now we will have to prepare well for the next round, it’s been a long time since I haven’t chained matches. I’m happy to be able to be there tomorrow, relax, prepare myself and then watch the others shit a little, that’s not bad (laughs)”, he underlines in rediscovering with pleasure the rhythm of the big tournaments.
Because since his semi-final at the Australian Open in 2019, Pouille has been hit by so many physical glitches (elbow, back, shoulder, abdominals, ribs) that his morale has been very badly affected. To the point of sinking into a depression and considering putting away his snowshoes for good.
The Noah shirt
In an interview with the daily L’Equipe in March, he admitted to having arrived last year “after Roland, in England, to sleep an hour a night and to drink alone”.
“Now it’s over, it’s behind me, even if I sometimes think about it. It serves me and gives me more strength than anything else,” he says now.
Virtually without advertising contracts, Pouille is wearing an outfit at Roland-Garros this year in tribute to the one with which Yannick Noah won the tournament in 1983.
“Behind, there are his initials (…) if it can make me win Roland, that would be fantastic”, he says with a touch of euphoria, before recovering: “But good, for the moment, I’m not there…”
The path is still very long. He will have to face the Taiwanese Chun-Hsin Tseng (215th at 21) on Wednesday to try to play a third qualifying round which would allow him, in the event of victory, to integrate the main draw of the French Open.
A hell of an obstacle course for a player who has not won a match on the ATP circuit since a first round at the Masters 1000 in Madrid more than a year ago and who, this year, has not played so far than on the Challenger circuit where he only won three matches and lost four.
“Often, in people’s minds, I remain the favorite on the pitch despite everything, whereas I am no longer one at all at the moment,” he comments.
On the Parisian clay, he felt the comforting support of the public who notably sang a Marseillaise after he ended up snatching the first set against Machac.
“That’s why I wanted to play tennis again, to relive that. Watching Gilles (Simon) at Bercy (last year for the final tournament of his career, editor’s note), in this kind of “Atmosphere, it gave me chills. Playing a first qualifying round at 8:30 p.m. and court 14 was almost full for a large part of the match, with that atmosphere, it was fantastic”, underlines- he.
“When there are all these people who are from the entrance on the court all the way behind and chanting my name, of course it’s great”, he admits.
So whatever happens, after years in which he lost some certainties, one thing was certain for Pouille when he arrived in Roland-Garros qualifying: “I knew that I would give 400% and that I would do my best, that couldn’t be taken away from me.”