Determined Pouille Fights Into Australian Open Semi-finals
The Frenchman’s decision to hire former WTA No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, a one-time coach to Andy Murray, is reaping dividends after a spell-binding performance on serve to knock out Canadian No. 16 seed Milos Raonic 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-4 in three hours and two minutes.
“I didn't have to face a break point for almost three hours,” said Pouille. “Even if I lost the third set, in my mind it was clear I had to stay focused on my service game, taking care of that, then trying to put as many returns as I can. In the third set I had some break points. He always saved it really well with a good serve, good points. Then he played a good tie-break.
“Here we are. It's a fourth set. I'm still leading two sets to one, so I don't have to panic. I really needed to stay positive, still doing what I did great for two hours [and] 30 minutes.”
Pouille had never won a match at Melbourne Park and had made only two major championship quarter-finals (2016 Wimbledon, US Open) before this month. But on Friday, he'll face World No. 1 and six-time former champion Novak Djokovic, who defeated eighth seed Kei Nishikori, for a place in the final at Melbourne Park.
Few have surprised more this fortnight than the 24-year-old Frenchman, who cracked the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings last March, but ended the year outside the Top 30. He struggled with motivation and confidence, and began losing. Pouille made three finals — the Open Sud de France, the Open 13 Provence and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships — last February, but advanced to only one semi-final for the remainder of the year.
“I didn't really enjoy my time on court. You lose one match, two match, then it's tough for you to come back,” he said.
He split with long-time coach Emmanuel Planque, who had been in his corner when Pouille knocked out Rafael Nadal at the 2016 US Open to make the quarter-finals. Last month, Pouille started working with Mauresmo, a two-time Grand Slam champion.
Credit Mauresmo, a fresh start in Australia or a new attitude from Pouille, but whatever combination has spurred his change, it's working. On Wednesday, Pouille lost just 13 of his first-service points, withstood 25 aces from Raonic, and hit three more winners than the World No. 17 (62 to 59).
Pouille fell behind a break early against Raonic, but found ways inside the service games of the Canadian, who had powered through one of the toughest paths to the quarter-finals, beating Nick Kyrgios, Stan Wawrinka, Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Alexander Zverev.
Pouille was hitting winners off of Raonic's serves, and when he didn't, he often turned the match into a baseline affair, with Raonic craving a chance to come forward, but Pouille playing the aggressor from inside the baseline.
The Frenchman took the opening tie-break, and behind a break of serve, ran away with the second. Raonic had come back from two-sets down once before, and he saved four break points in the third set to stay in it. In the tie-break, the Canadian locked in and won the first six points.
With just one break point on Raonic’s serve at 0/1, 30/40 in the fourth set, it looked destined for a tie-break. But Pouille grit his teeth in the 10th game to clinch his third match point, courtesy of a backhand error from Raonic, to complete his fifth tour-level victory in a row.
Raonic, who also lost in the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2015 (l. to Djokovic) and 2017 (l. to Nadal), had previously beaten Pouille on three occasions.
“I wish maybe I would have played better,” said Raonic, when asked what he would have done differently. “That's the only thing. But I saw the way he's been playing this week. The past few matches, he's been playing extremely well. I knew he was going to make things difficult. I wish I would have just served better and cleaned up some aspects of my game where I felt like I was just a little bit behind.
“A few times he did surprise me. But then, no, when I sort of had the chance to look back at it, I don't think I put in a high first-serve percentage today relative to the other days. I just didn't take care of the things I needed to take care of.”