Pierre-Hugues Herbert: Narrowing His Vision
With exclusive insight, the Frenchman opens up to life inside the tramlines
Editor's Note: This story was first published on 29 May.
It was in Harlingen, Texas that the conversation took place, after bearing witness to an awkward, tense exchange between father and son, united in doing their best and what they thought was right, but never quite spelling out their real concerns – perhaps out of fear, but certainly out of love. For years, Pierre-Hugues Herbert had supplemented early singles losses, with confidence-boosting runs on the doubles court, to ensure the belief that his tennis development was on the correct trajectory. But was it? After a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 first-round loss to South African wild card Dean O’Brien — who played two-handed shots off both sides — at a USA F6 ITF Futures tournament, where Herbert had been the top seed and played from the baseline, Ronald Agenor stepped in. Not because the Haitian needed to, but because he saw similarities in Herbert and the Frenchman's tennis-loving father, Jean-Roch, to his own father, Frédéric, and older brother, Lionel, who had coached Agenor to a successful life on the ATP Tour.
Agenor, coaching a Zimbabwean player, Takanyi Garanganga, at the time, had witnessed a player who had developed his own style; away from the baseline-dominated modern power game. Recalling the encounter of February 2013, the former World No. 22 admitted six years on, “There was a void in his (Pierre-Hugues) head and a lack of confidence; a player looking for himself. His father, courtside, took more notes than I have seen anyone take. There was passion, and it was fabulous to see a Dad invest so much, but it hurt me to see such a partnership in trouble.
“Jean-Roch, who I knew a little, asked me to talk to Pierre-Hugues a little bit. I said I would do, but ‘I would like to talk to you both at the same time.’ We spent more than an hour in a café, and I started telling Pierre-Hugues that he was ‘lucky to have a father who wants the very best for you.’ There was technical mastery, forged by working with a number of coaches, but Herbert played a risky game that could not be trusted when it came to the crunch.
“I said to Jean-Roch, ‘You have a son who wants to express himself, to show his Dad he is independent. You have done everything you can, and more, but, if at a certain moment Pierre-Hugues does not want you to coach him, it is not because he does not love you.’”
The chat by Agenor, a player who dared to dream and won three ATP Tour titles from eight finals, relieved both parties. “Ronald told me something that my father has been trying to tell me for years and years, and that I hadn't listened to,” remembers Herbert. “You know, sometimes it's easier if a third person tells you something instead of your own father, for instance. I remember that it was something that really made me change. I’d often questioned what type of player I wanted to be, because I have plenty of shots. I needed to find my own balance, and it took me a while to understand that. Initially, I wanted to play from the baseline like everyone else, hitting hard. But that wasn’t my tennis. Then, I realised if I wanted to be efficient, I needed to accept that I should be different.”
The cerebral introvert had, by that stage, learnt to lose a lot, but the early wins, even when his childhood rivals on the international circuit from 2006 to 2009 were growing up fast, had enabled Herbert to continue working, providing him energy to win the junior Wimbledon doubles title with Kevin Krawietz in 2009. “All my family was amazing,” recalls Herbert, the son of two tennis coaches. “When I was younger and at tournaments with my father, my mother was working. It was a team spirit. When my father was away, my brother [Gabriel], had no father at home. He had to go to school and become older, the same for my sister [Marjolaine].
“They all made sacrifices for me, my Dad for sure. He gave me the chance to become a pro tennis player. For my development it was amazing, in my whole life. He never gave me a limit. He always told me to reach to the heights and gave me everything. He always wanted me to go with other coaches, and take in what they told me.”
Herbert became the CEO of his own company aged 23, when he began to realise the true meaning of life as a professional tennis player. The decision was soon vindcated with a practice-session call-up from Roger Federer at the 2014 Gerry Weber Open in Halle, and then, a few months later, signing up with Michal Przysiezny five minutes before the qualifying deadline for the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships and ending the week with the Tokyo trophy. It was a special moment for father and son, but also a turning point.
Today, Herbert remains in the same boat, but the concerns of whether he has sufficient ability to progress beyond a singles career-high of No. 36 in the ATP Rankings; and the angst, pain and crisis moments that create doubt, are on an all-together different scale. “Mastering the mental side is a long process, it’s not a sprint,” says Herbert, who has walked onto court with a wooden egg in his bag, a gift from a friend that acts as a lucky charm and a reminder of his journey, for the past five years. “A tennis career is a marathon, with lots of tournaments. You have to be 100 per cent positive, confident, and playing doubles on the biggest courts has helped me. Tennis fortunes can be quick to turn negative, and not wanting to play anymore. The mental side is so important as when you’re not in the right frame of mind you cannot make smart decisions. I’m now very focused and in my own world.”
Julia Lang, his girlfriend of four-and-a-half years, has given Herbert the balance to perform on the court and switch off away from the tramlines. “She has taken on greater responsibilities, but she is my girlfriend, my travel buddy, helping with my career and brightening up my days. She has a big smile and she helps me a lot. Travelling with and playing the guitar, singing, and like a lot of players, selecting my fantasy football team, takes up a lot of my time and makes me crazy too! But it’s also helpful to compartmentalise my life.”
While Herbert may have commanded headlines for his doubles prowess — becoming the eighth men’s team in the sport’s history to complete a career Grand Slam with Nicolas Mahut at this year’s Australian Open and winning 15 trophies together in the space of four years — don’t make the mistake of categorising the amiable Frenchman solely as a doubles player. “I now consider myself a singles player that plays doubles,” says Herbert, who has already recorded singles victories over Top 15 performers Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori and Daniil Medvedev in 2019. “I really do get mad when I hear that I’m just a doubles player.”
Winning all four major doubles titles by the age of 27 simply accelerated Herbert’s decision to focus on singles, just as he’d hoped for as a 13-year-old wannabe. Three days after their triumph in Melbourne, he telephoned Mahut to break the news. “Our story is not ending,” reassures Herbert. “We’d like to continue playing and try to win a medal for France at Tokyo 2020.”
The old frailties of Herbert as a dangerous player, able to contest a great match but give away a lot of points, have diminished. He perseveres by rightly playing on the edge, his natural game; and is a stylist of great fluency. His service motion, with deep knee bend, full racquet take back, and exaggerated ball toss deep in the court, evokes memories of John McEnroe’s motion, and enables Herbert to launch an attack on the net — no matter the surface. His hands, as evidenced in his doubles performances alongside Mahut, are among the best on the ATP Tour; his shots have become big weapons, and with an improved baseline game, Herbert is becoming a strong and complete singles competitor.
“In the first year on tour, it was all a novelty, visiting new tournaments that I’d watched on television,” remembers Herbert. “Then, in the second year, I found it tougher, mentally. The players knew my game and it forced me to grow up, and ‘become a man’. My game, that I worked on growing up, was taken apart, my technique dissected. But I have now certainly gotten better on my groundstrokes. I gained more strength in my legs, because of numerous fitness and physio sessions, and in my head.”
Herbert’s belief that he can go out and play his game to beat the very best, stems from experience, but also having the best of both worlds in coaches, Fabrice Santoro, the double-handed magician, and Benjamin Balleret, the Monegasque who plied the majority of his career on the ATP Challenger Tour.
“They each have different views of my game, but they share their views for my benefit,” says Herbert. “With Fabrice we’ve worked a lot on my game, my footwork, to be more precise and stable. Working on drills and feeding the ball. What I like most is that they are both open to trying new things, and together we’re not scared to do so. Both can rest, and not travel as much, then bring energy on tour when ready. They both know what it takes to be a professional tennis player. There is a little more pressure on myself, as it’s a risky decision, but I am longing for good results. It’s a little more stressful, as it’s challenging, but it’s good.”
Santoro, who first came on board as a coach 19 months ago, was quick to recognise Herbert’s professionalism and ambition. “When we first started working together he was around No. 100-110 in the world,” said Santoro. “We never thought in the first year he'd stop playing doubles at a Grand Slam, but now that he has broken into the Top 40, the ambition is different. He trusts his game and is stronger. We tried to make him stronger in the legs, with better footing on the ground, because if he is stronger in the legs, he'll be more aggressive from the baseline to the net. Before he was a little weaker in the legs, and he struggled moving to balls.”
Balleret, who admits that the mistakes he made as a player have helped him learn as a coach over the past few years, feels that Herbert’s conditioning has been one of the determining factors over his consistent form. “Initially, I felt that there was a limit to his capabilities on the court, as his body or preparation wasn’t ideal. Now we’ve done a lot of work on this and it’s paying off. Pierre-Hugues is now capable of playing four to five weeks in a row.”
In reaching three ATP Tour singles finals — the 2015 Winston-Salem Open (l. to Anderson), the 2018 Shenzhen Open (l. to Nishioka) and February’s Open Sud de France in Montpelllier (l. to Tsonga) — Herbert was energised to go big; working his way through the tournament by demonstration of his work ethic and focus on the practice or match court. “I’ve felt for the past few years that I’ve gotten better in singles, particularly over the past 12 months since Roland Garros,” admits Herbert. “I want to get better in practice and learn from my matches.”
Herbert, the analyst, is often spot on. He can be hard on himself, but every champion needs that trait. Santoro and Balleret can talk freely and Herbert doesn’t take criticism in the wrong way. “I’d like to enter the Top 30 [of the ATP Rankings], but it’s a big step forward,” says Herbert. “I’d like to win my first ATP Tour title in singles, but I’d like to continue to be the best player I can be. It would be great too, to reach the second week of a Grand Slam as a singles player.”
Herbert played with great conviction in his victory over Nishikori at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters in April and with emotion, on Monday, when the chips were down at Roland Garros, to battle back from two-sets-to-love down for the first time in his career against Medvedev, one of the 2019 season’s most consistent and hard-working players. While Herbert remains a work in progress, after years of cautious optimism and questioning, with his intellect and drive anything is possible entering his physical peak.