French doubles pairing look to complete the set

  • Michael Beattie
  • Getty Images

As starts to a season go, you’ll be hard-pressed to beat Pierre-Hugues Herbert’s early form in 2019. The world No.53 opened his account with victory over world No.8 Dominic Thiem in Doha before launching a tilt at the doubles title with David Goffin, the duo beating the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Karen Khachanov and Novak Djokovic en route to victory.

A top-10 win in singles and a 14th ATP title in doubles – just two of the myriad reasons Herbert has reason to be cheerful on his return at Melbourne Park, the scene of the Frenchman’s sudden personal breakthrough four years ago. 

In 2015, after four years of qualifying draws and first-round losses in both singles and doubles, he claimed his first main-draw match win at a Grand Slam alongside new partner, Nicolas Mahut. Victory over Martin Klizan and Philipp Oswald in the first round was their first tour-level win together, sparking a run that ran through to the final, where they lost to Italian duo Simone Bolleli and Fabio Fognini.

“I remember all the matches, actually,” Herbert said fondly. “I’d never won a match at a Grand Slam before that, so being able to win the first one I think was something big. 

“And it was a good story, because Nico asked me the year before to play in 2015 together for the first time. He was 32 already, and I was 23, the young man coming up, and it was our first tournament together. To be able to go through to the final, it was an amazing time.”

When you were five or six and you were watching it on TV, or when you were 10 and started having dreams, it’s something special to live it. Living your dream as a kid is always something special
Pierre-Hugues Herbert on winning Roland Garros 2018 with Nicolas Mahut

For those wondering, Herbert and Mahut have not gone their separate ways. Goffin was drafted in to partner Herbert in Doha while Mahut prepared for the qualifying draw in Melbourne, where they will contest their fifth Australian Open together – a relative lifetime compared to so many fleeting pairings on the doubles circuit.

“I think it’s communication,” Herbert replies when asked the key to their enduring partnership. “And for sure it helps to win some matches and some great events. But I think I have a special relationship outside of the court with Nico, and this helps a lot to continue playing together, to have four years together.”

The synergy between the compatriots has been palpable since their 2015 run at Melbourne Park, and the impact on Herbert’s game instantaneous. The Frenchmen claimed the US Open title that September before a banner 2016 that saw them claim consecutive ATP Masters 1000 titles in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte-Carlo before winning Wimbledon. 

Another trio of Masters titles followed in 2017, but in 2018 they landed the most meaningful title for any Frenchman, triumphing at Roland Garros. Herbert and Mahut became just the third French duo to win the men’s doubles title in the Open era, beating Olivier Marach and Mate Pavic in the final and sparking emotional celebrations on Court Philippe Chatrier that were gate-crashed in adorable fashion by Mahut’s son.

“When you grow up as a French kid and you love tennis, you are watching Roland Garros,” Herbert said. 

Having struggled to find the words in the immediate aftermath in Paris, he still talks of the moment in mystical terms, as if it happened to someone else.

“Being able to win the tournament, to play on the centre court, and to achieve that is something you can’t even believe. When you were five or six and you were watching it on TV, or when you were 10 and started having dreams, it’s something special to live it. Living your dream as a kid is always something special.”

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Mahut and Herbert became the third French male duo to win the Roland Garros doubles title

Something special is on offer to the pair at this year’s Australian Open. With titles from Paris, London and New York already to their name, only Melbourne remains missing from their Grand Slam doubles collection. 

Herbert remains focused on both the singles and doubles draws at this year’s Australian Open, with his run to the Shenzhen final in September – the second ATP singles final of his career – testament to aspirations to surpass his career-high singles ranking of No.50 in 2019. 

But there’s no denying the allure of becoming the first Frenchmen to complete a career Grand Slam since Jean Borotra collected all four mixed doubles titles, completing his set in Australia in 1928. And while Herbert doesn’t want to get carried away before a ball is struck in anger, he admits the subject of a career doubles slam has come up in his conversations with Mahut.

“We’ve spoken, yes,” Herbert conceded. “It would be an amazing achievement to win all the Grand Slams. We’re far, far away from that, but for sure we’re going to be especially motivated here.”