Around this time last year when Frenchman Lucas Pouille had sunk into a dark place and “stopped playing tennis” in his mind, he watched senior compatriot Gilles Simon’s celebratory farewell scenes in front of his home fans at Roland Garros.
The rush of emotions transporting from Court Philippe-Chatrier deep into Pouille’s heart, the former world No. 10 longed to savour a similar atmosphere.
Late on Sunday night as a packed Court 14 remained stayed put until the last point of his match, Pouille stood on court singing the La Marseillaise — the French national anthem — along with the spectators, placing his right palm on his chest for a good 30 seconds.
This was no retirement, yet no less a moment of celebration.
Coming through the qualifying rounds to enter the French Open main draw, the 29-year-old won his first Grand Slam match since 2019, the season in which he was an Australian Open semi-finalist. From there began Pouille’s vicious downhill spiral — first of the body reeling from an elbow surgery in 2020 and then of the mind slipping into alcoholism and depression last year that almost made him quit the sport.
If Pouille was after emotions this Roland Garros, there was plenty coming. Right after getting past Austrian lucky loser Jurij Rodionov 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 in the first round. Right after holding off the same opponent on the same court in his third qualifying round and breaking down in tears. Right after walking through a guard of honour by the ball kids minutes later carrying his two-year-old daughter.
If Pouille was after results this Roland Garros, there was plenty coming there too. His world ranking down to 675 from 22 at the start of 2020, Pouille became the lowest-ranked player to win a first-round match at the French Open in a decade. Pouille won four matches in a row for the first time in two years, since reaching the final of a second-tier Challenger in Cassis in 2021. Pouille crossed the opening hurdle in a Grand Slam for the first time since the 2019 US Open, on the same courts in which he dispatched Rafael Nadal from the fourth round in 2016.
“We sometimes go through moments where we can crack,” Pouille was quoted as saying by RMC Sport after his opening win. “These moments were very difficult but they were necessary because I was going to hit the wall. I think I stopped the train at the right time before the crash.”
That train was on an altogether different track four years ago, coasting to a semi-final destination at the 2019 Australian Open a year after Pouille had reached a career-high world No. 10 ranking. A persistent elbow injury, and a subsequent surgery in 2020, then demoralisingly derailed it.
He played just one match in 2020 and returned the following year for a win-loss record of 5-14, four of those wins coming in one Challenger in Cassis. Out of the top 100, Pouille drifted back to the Challenger circuit. Without much success there too, he shut off the last season two tournaments after crashing out of the French Open first round as a wildcard in June.
In an interview in March to L’Equipe, Pouille said he was compelled to stop for his mental health, “otherwise, I would have ended up in Sainte-Anne, at the crazy house.”
“I started to have a darker side and go into a depression that led me, after Roland Garros, to sleep only one hour a night and drink alone,” he told L’Equipe.
It was “impossible to close my eyes” for Pouille, locking himself up in his room, staring at the ceiling all night and lying about it to his coach staying with him.
“I was sinking into a creepy thing,” he said.
The sight of Simon’s goodbye, along with the presence of his daughter, plucked him out of that, placed him back on the Challenger tour in January and into the French Open second round six months later.
“If I was told at some points in your career you’re going to be feeling down, very lonely, at rock bottom, I would have said: ‘What the hell?’” Pouille, who will play 14th seed Cameron Norrie in the second round, told the Roland Garros website.
“Now. It’s already been four years since my injury, then getting down mentally. Now it’s all about playing for pleasure, enjoying being on court.”