Nicole Hack: What ATP Young Gun has had the most surprising 2016 performance so far?
Lucas Pouille has outright had the most surprising 2016 performance thus far. He’s not as well-known and popular as No. 19 Nick Kygrios or No. 15 Dominic Thiem, but that’s because just a mere three months ago he was barely scraping inside the Top 100.
The 22-year-old Frenchman has made an incredible climb from being ranked No. 91 on February 15 to a career-high No. 31 on May 23. His impressive 60-spot leap is thanks to a 14-10 record that includes a semi-final appearance at the Masters 1000 tournament in Rome and making the finals of the Masters 250 in Bucharest.
Pouille’s improved consistency, combined with his massive groundstrokes and serve has helped him outlast David Ferrer (the epitome of a “grinder” in tennis) twice this season. He recently toppled the veteran Spaniard on Ferrer’s preferable surface in Rome in two breezy sets. Prior to his shocking clay court defeat of Ferrer in Rome, Pouille outlasted the Spaniard 6-7 (1), 7-6 (4), 7-5 in Miami.
Previous to Rome, the Frenchman had another spectacular win on clay, overcoming No. 13 David Goffin in three sets 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (7). It was Pouille’s second win over Goffin in 2016, as he had outlasted the Belgian in Brisbane back in January.
It’s noticeable that Pouille has greatly improved his consistency, which means he has increased both his fitness and stamina. These physical improvements have been apparent in the number of three-set matches the Frenchman has engaged in 2016, showing that he is on the brink of winning a lot more. Currently, Pouille is 9-3 in three set matches, with all the losses in the third sets being decided by a lone break.
It’s evident that Pouille has the mental strength to pull through during high-pressure moments and with some more playing experience, he’ll be able to convert in the deciders more often.
Pouille’s notably improved play over the past five months earned him his first Grand Slam seeding at the French Open, which is conveniently played in his home country. He is seeded 29th at the second slam of the year, and earned his second Grand Slam win in eight appearances over compatriot Julian Benneteau in four sets. Unfortunately, Pouille’s momentum on clay stopped there, after he suffered a shocking straight set loss to Andrej Martin of Slovakia, who is ranked a startling 100 spots behind the Frenchman.
Looking ahead, I expect Pouille to maintain his ranking through 2016. He’s demonstrated that he can push the best players in the world to the brink and is only a few points away from turning a loss into a win. As long as he continues to be patient, calm and fit, his name will soon be as recognizable as Kyrgios and Thiem.
Adam Rittenberg: Which Young Gun(s) has the best combination of draw and momentum at the French to reach the final weekend?
13th-seeded Dominic Thiem (also conveniently the highest ranked ATP Young Gun) has both the momentum and the luck of the draw to catapult him into the second week of the French Open.
In 2016, the 22-year-old Austrian has three titles in four finals appearances. He’s amassed a stellar 36-10 record this season, with impressive wins over four former/current Top 10 players: Roger Federer in Rome, David Ferrer in Rio, Rafael Nadal in Argentina and Marin Cilic in Brisbane.
Thiem finished his road to Roland Garros with his third title of the season, capturing the Open de Nice Cote d’Azur trophy with a three-set win over fellow ATP Young Gun, Alexander Zverev. This win should give Thiem the confidence and push at the second Grand Slam of the season.
Thiem’s eighth of the draw will also help the Austrian No. 1 at a deep run on the red dirt. After 18-seeded Kevin Anderson and 32-seeded Fabio Fognini both suffered embarrassing first round losses, the only seed left in this particular section is Nadal.
Thiem has previously beaten Nadal on clay in Argentina, but also lost to him rather uncontestedly at Monaco in April. Despite the recent loss, Thiem has the skills and game plan to overcome the King of Clay, who is still trying to find his once-impeccable form.
If Thiem does overcome Nadal, he will have to face sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. This is a much easier match than Nadal, despite Tsonga’s 2-0 head-to-head lead over Thiem. The 31-year-old Frenchman trounced Thiem in the round of 16 at Indian Wells in March, but that was on hard court. The duo’s other match was played back in 2013, when Thiem was only 18 years old.
Thiem’s game and mental fortitude has evidently matured with age since 2013, and with the home crowd pressure on Tsonga, the Austrian could overcome the Frenchman for the first time with ease.
But, before I get ahead of myself, Thiem must first tackle Zverev in a rematch of the Nice final in the third round. Merely a week ago, the Austrian found himself in a rollercoaster 6-4, 3-6, 6-0 match with the teenager from Germany who is ranked considerably lower than Thiem at No. 41.
If Thiem wants to roll over Zverev to face the King of Clay, he needs to capture the extremely consistent form he found to dominate the German 6-0 in the deciding set.
Ultimately, Thiem’s confidence will also play a huge role in him overcoming his fellow ATP Young Gun. He’s had an immaculate season and with mental strength and confidence being a tennis player’s biggest weapons, he is poised to complete the deepest run of all the ATP Young Guns at the French Open.