Pouille marches on as Raonic sent packing
Pouille marches on as Raonic sent packing
Lucas Pouille has launched into his maiden Grand Slam semifinal after nullifying the threat of 16th seed Milos Raonic’s scorching serves 7-6(4) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday.
The three-hour triumph books a Friday showdown with six-time Melbourne champion Novak Djokovic, following in the footsteps of six fellow Frenchmen to reach the Australian Open final four in the Open era.
“I’m just really happy, I knew it was going to be a really tough match," Pouille said.
"I returned great and kept my serve nearly all the match. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself and just enjoyed the moment.”
Pouille had lost in the first round in each of his five previous visits to Melbourne Park; on top of that, the 28th seed was defeated in all three Hopman Cup singles matches, and he fell in the first round of the Sydney International.
It’s fair to say it’s been a sharp turnaround in fortunes.
“I’m trying to forget about the start of the year,” joked Pouille in his on-court interview. “We kept working hard. It has been a matter of going step by step and to give all that I have in every point and here we are.”
The Canadian had claimed the honours in all three of their previous meetings without dropping a set, and the key question for Pouille was whether he could live with the Raonic serve.
Until they stepped on court, the former 2016 semifinalist had won 94 per cent of service games within his four matches, facing a meagre five break points. On top of that, Raonic had struck a tournament leading 107 aces.
The trend continued up against world No.31 Pouille. Raonic chalked up an opening hold with consecutive aces and catapulted another three aces in succession in his next game to deliver a 3-0 lead.
Pouille, ranked in the top 10 back in March 2018, seemed a little shell-shocked, but found his groove with progressive play, eagerly latching onto the short ball.
From 2-5 down Pouille, now coached by two-time Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo, lost just three points to restore scoreboard parity for 5-5. Former world No.3 Raonic fended off three break points, with his usually brutal serve way off radar.
A double fault gifted Pouille a 5-3 lead in the tie-break, before the Frenchman whipped a collection of sublime angled forehands to post his first set point. Raonic had him on the run, but the 28th seed was soaring and clattered a forehand pass down the line to motor ahead.
Pouille navigated past Aussie prodigy Alexei Popyrin in five sets, whilst toppling 11th seed Borna Coric en route to the quarterfinals, building belief for a deep run in Melbourne.
A double fault and wayward volley from 2016 Wimbledon finalist Raonic at 1-2 put the world No.17 under scrutiny. Pouille was smartly constructing points and a dipping backhand set the platform for the Frenchman to scoop a deft lob over the despairing Canadian for a commanding break lead. A hold to love with an ace soon clinched a clinical set in style.
Raonic had only achieved one comeback from a two-sets deficit, a 2016 victory over David Goffin at Wimbledon, but kept his title quest intact by fine margins.
The world No.17 dissolved break points with booming deliveries at 3-3 and 4-4 to set up an intriguing tie-break.
A smooth serve and volley ignited a near perfect breaker from the 28-year-old, who surged 5-0 in front courtesy of a sweetly-timed pick up volley. A Pouille backhand pinged wide and Raonic roared “lets go!” as he marched to the changeover.
“I'm still leading two sets to one, so I don't have to panic,” said Pouille, revealing his mindset at the time. “I really needed to stay positive, still doing what I did great for two hours 30 minutes.”
Locked on serve in the fourth set until 5-4, Pouille sensed his chance to break new ground at the majors.
The 24-year-old applied the pressure with inspired play, and having seen a Raonic forehand blaze wide, held his arms aloft in victory to become the first Frenchman to reach the last four at a Grand Slam since Gael Monfils at the 2016 US Open.
“It all came very fast for me in 2016 reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the US Open. The next year I didn’t win too many matches but I still finished No.18 in the world,” Pouille said, eager to credit Mauresmo for rejuvenating his tennis.
“She's a champion. She's a great coach, I was expecting this starting with Amelie,” reflected the Frenchman, having teamed up with the Australian Open 2006 champion back in December.
“I think she's bringing a lot of confidence to my game, to my personality, to my state of mind. The goal is not to reach the final, the semifinal, the goal is to improve my tennis, to put what I work on during the practice in the match. That gives me less pressure. I'm just trying to focus on my game, not on the consequences and the results.
“Last year I lost a bit of joy on the court and I started a new adventure in my team, which has been a great thing for me. I enjoy being on the court again and that’s the most important thing.”