His early successes and attractive all-court game took Pouille to No10 in the ranks a year ago after winning three titles the year before and continuing that surge into 2018 with the Montpellier title and finals Dubai and Marseille.
Then he seemed to lose his way through 2018, losing in the first round eight times. He won just 11 main-tour matches to the end of the season, and 2019 looked little better: no wins at the Hopman Cup or in Sydney.
He arrived in Melbourne, now ranked a mere 31, knowing that he had never won a match in five previous visits, as he began a campaign that threw the likes of Borna Coric and Milos Raonic into his path.
But Mauresmo, a former Australian champion herself, had clearly inspired her compatriot. He had, he said, “lost a bit of joy to be on the court.” Now, he admitted, “I enjoy being on the court again.”
And it showed. Win after win in Melbourne took him to his first Major semi-final, though the matches had been far from easy—indeed, four straight four-setters lasting over three hours apiece. His reward, after 15 hours on court, was perhaps the toughest possible opponent in the world: current No1, six-time former Australian champion, holder of both the Wimbledon and US Open titles, Novak Djokovic.
This time last year, the mighty Serb was in the midst of a relative slump with an unresolved elbow injury, but after losing in the quarter-finals, he bit the bullet, had minor surgery, and the rest is history.
The wins started to come on the clay of early summer, and after losing a close final at Queen’s to Marin Cilic, he would lose just three more matches to the end of 2018, winning both those Majors, closing the Masters golden circle with the Cincinnati title, plus lifting the Shanghai Masters trophy.
His preparation for 2019 began with Doha, and he built up a nice head of steam once he hit the most successful tournament on his resume. With six titles in the bag in Melbourne, he was primed to go for the outright record of seven Australian trophies, and only once was he pushed to three hours—by Daniil Medvedev in the fourth round.
The biggest seed in his quarter, Kei Nishikori, was forced to retire after just 12 games, and that was, Djokovic afterwards joked, “just what the doctor ordered” as he prepared to take on the Frenchman for the first time in their careers.
Even the weather relented for what was billed to be an intriguing contest of contrasting styles, dropping from an eight-year Melbourne high in the 40s to a comfortable 25C.
But much as the semi-final of the night before, between Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas, it would prove only what a chasm exists between the elite men and the rest.
The top three seeds, Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer, had won every Australian Open but one dating back 13 years, had won the last eight Majors, had shared the No1 ranking last year, and the two younger members of the triumvirate, Djokovic at 31, Nadal at 32, were far from ready to see their run of dominance broken.
Nadal had allowed Tsitsipas just six games; Djokovic would be just as ruthless, dropping only four to Pouille.
It looked like a promising start from the Frenchman, with deuce on the opening Djokovic game, but the Serb slammed the door shut, and switched on the attack. Pouille immediately faced three break points, and double faulted on the last to concede his serve. A love hold from Djokovic—including a couple of aces—and it was 3-0.
It rapidly got worse for Pouille: another break, another love hold, 5-0, after 18 minutes. Djokovic completed the rout with one more break, 6-0, and just 23 minutes played. The Serb had won 28 points to Pouille’s 12, 11 winners for only one unforced error.
Djokovic made it seven games in a row with another hold via an ace, but Pouille finally got on the board, to cheers from the crowd, courtesy of one of his signature shots, an angled cross-court forehand pass. Yet so confident was the Djokovic serve that he aced on a second delivery—not for the first time—to subdue any threat: 2-1.
After a few longer rallies, Pouille seemed finally to be settled, but it was an illusion: He faced break point in the fourth game and again double faulted.
Such was the consistent length, accuracy, and varied direction of the Djokovic shots that Pouille could develop no attacking position, and too often he dropped the ball short—an open invitation to his opponent to fire off another winner and break. Djokovic held to love, 4-1, still with just one unforced error in his account.
He posted a second error with a fluffed volley, and Pouille held for 2-4, but Djokovic came in again to put away the next volley for a winner—a lesson learned in the space of a minute—and held to love. This was ruthless, efficient, clean and tidy, and Djokovic would break again, in the longest game of the set, 6-2, with barely an hour on the clock.
The third set unfolded with more of the same, a decent hold on both sides, but a love hold by Djokovic preluded another break, 3-1, and although Pouille steadied the ship with a love hold of his own, this was only going end one way. One more flawless game by Djokovic, 5-2, and a final error from the Frenchman on break point, finished things off in a super-swift hour and 23 minutes, 6-2.
It had been a master-class from the most fit, flexible and focused of athletes. But Djokovic afterwards admitted on court: “It’s definitely one of the best matches I ever had on this court.”
The statistics did not disagree: He dropped only eight points on serve in the match; offered not a single break chance; made 24 winners for just five unforced errors; ended the match with twice as many points as his opponent. And bearing in mind it was his 67th win in the tournament to reach his seventh final, that is some threat for the final.
Pouille did not disagree either. He said after the match:
“I think when Novak’s playing like this, he’s the best in the world for sure. We’ll see on Sunday how he goes, because Rafa looks pretty amazing too!”
For the Djokovic victory set a replay of one of the greatest Major title battles ever contested, on the same court against the same opponent.
Only once, in a record head-to-head history of 52 previous meetings, have Djokovic and Nadal met at the Australian Open, and it was a humdinger that lasted just seven minutes short of six hours, yet contained only one tie-break among the five sets.
And to give some further context to that match, each man won more points than either of them played in their entire semi-finals: In 2012, Djokovic was 193/369, Nadal 176/369; Djokovic’s 2019 semi was 83/44 (127 points), Nadal’s 79/47 (126 points).
Seven years on, they are ranked Nos 1 and 2 in the world, just as they were then, and both within touching distance of new personal records. Clear the diary: it could be something special.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge