Australian Open: Surprise package Lucas Pouille sets up semi-final with Djokovic

Frenchman showed just how good he is by dumping out Milos Raonic in the quarters

France’s Lucas Pouille celebrates his victory against Milos Raonic during their men’s singles quarter-final match on day ten of the Australian Open. Photo: David Gray/Getty Images

France’s Lucas Pouille celebrates his victory against Milos Raonic during their men’s singles quarter-final match on day ten of the Australian Open. Photo: David Gray/Getty Images

 

One of the least-mentioned plus points of this shredded Australian Open men’s draw is the uncertainty injected into it by the random fall of favourites, and the trend continued when Lucas Pouille beat Milos Raonic on day nine.

The received wisdom was that the Canadian with the golden arm would bring too much power with ball in hand for the Frenchman with the cultured groundstrokes – nurtured in many practice sessions with Roger Federer – but it didn’t quite work out that way. Pouille prevailed 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-4 in just over three hours to earn his first slam semi-final place. The 24-year-old will face Novak Djokovic after Kei Nishikori retired hurt while trailing 6-1, 4-1 during their quarter-final. Nishikori had a medical time-out between sets, with the trainer working on a right thigh problem.

Early intelligence on this quarter-final was mixed. While Pouille sat 14 points adrift of Raonic in the rankings at 31, there were doubts about the big man’s fitness given the number of times he’d had to quit the Tour in the past with a hospital log of injuries.

When he put 30 aces past Nick Kyrgios in the first round of the championship fortnight, the Australian reckoned the super-server’s chances of winning the title were not as strong as the numbers suggested. “There are players that are much better than I am, who can neutralise big servers so easily with the chip return, which I don’t have. [Raonic’s serving] would have beaten a lot of players, for sure. I probably would have beaten 75 per cent of the draw today. But Milos played scary.”

Raonic continued to play scary all the way to the quarter-finals, leading the tournament’s big hitters with 107 aces. The quickest of his new batch on Wednesday was 139 miles an hour, as his pre-injury aura returned. The free points kept flowing, and Pouille soaked them up with the sort of defensive skills Kyrgios referred to.

Once he had clawed back Raonic’s 5-2 lead in the second set, he seemed to have the match under control after an hour-and-a-half, but the contest see-sawed once more as Raonic forced the tie-break that kept him in the fight, closing the gap after wasting two of six set points.

Pouille, too, had been profligate. He had not been able to cash inon four break points in the ninth game of that third set and might have wondered if his winow had been opened and closed. He was within touching distance of moving into the semi-finals, a victory in itself, whatever the result there.

Novak Djokovic advanced after Kei Nishikori had to retire hurt. Photo: Greg Wood/Getty Images
Novak Djokovic advanced after Kei Nishikori had to retire hurt. Photo: Greg Wood/Getty Images

In three previous contests with the Canadian, Pouille could not win a set. In the space of two winning sets, he looked like sending him home in double-quick time. But, while he had only once in his career come from two sets down, Raonic is so often underestimated. Nobody expected him to beat Alexander Zverev, and he did so – comfortably.

Yet Pouille did not represent as imposing a threat as others in the quarters, having struggled for more than 12 hours to reach the final 16 of a slam for the third time, having been a losing quarter-finalist at Wimbledon three years ago, and in New York later that year.

The end was tight. Raonic was given the ball again at 4-5. Surely, went the theory, he would add to his aces tally, level it up and go on to victory in a fifth set. Pouille, though, chipped and teased his way to two match points, forcing Raonic to push a final backhand wide.

Raonic ended up with 132 aces, way more than anyone left in the draw – but he is not alongside is peers still competing for a bigger prize. While Pouille’s tally of free serving points, 84, puts him a respectable fifth in the field, he will bring a bit more than raw intimidation to the semi-finals.

Only six Frenchman in the modern era have reached this stage. Pouille is the first since Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2010. To get there that year, he beat Djokovic, then lost to Federer in the semi-final, the Swiss going on to beat Andy Murray in the final.

Pouille’s coach is Amelie Mauresmo, who would later join Murray for a fruitful couple of year. It all seems so long ago. – Guardian service

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