MELBOURNE, Australia — Lucas Pouille, the brightest young star in men’s tennis in France, was flickering.
Pouille, 24, reached a career-high ranking of No. 10 in March, but did not win more than two matches consecutively after that, finishing the year with a 14-17 run. Playing without inspiration or belief, he slipped to No. 32 by the end of the season.
“I lost confidence, and then I was not enjoying so much being on court, being on tour,” he said. “I didn’t really want to play tennis.”
He had to find a solution, he said. “I had to find my joy of being on court.”
Pouille split with Emmanuel Planque, his coach of six years, in November. Pouille, who had yearned to take a break from the tour but decided to finish the season so he could play in the Davis Cup final, was on his own for eight days. When he did pick up a racket, it was only to play minitennis with friends.
But on the Monday after the Davis Cup final, which France lost to Croatia, he met with his team’s captain-in-waiting, Amélie Mauresmo.
Pouille had another offer: Coach him instead.
“When we were talking to each other, it was this couple hours of talking that really had me thinking,” Mauresmo said. “He had me thinking that he’s ambitious, that he wants to do everything in order to be as good as possible. He kind of convinced me with what he was saying, that he was ready to do all the efforts and the hard work that are going with being at the top, with digging deep to be at your best.”
Lucas Pouille during his first-round win over Mikhail Kukushkin at the Australian Open this week.
Stepping away from the Davis Cup position before she even started was not an easy decision for Mauresmo, especially considering the excitement over her appointment as the country’s first female captain. But it was made easier, she said, by the radical changes coming to the competition this season, which will reduce the final rounds to a World Cup-style format played at one site, with three matches of best-of-three sets in each pairing, instead of five matches in a best-of-five format.
“I think the captain’s role will be really reduced,” Mauresmo, 39, said. “What was interesting for me was all the weeks of preparations, the three days of competition, the best-of-five, building a team throughout a year, and the home-and-away. For me, I grew up watching that. I grew up having the emotions that go with it.”
“So I have no doubt that it will be a good show, a good competition for the crowd, and they will probably put on a big show or whatever. But as a captain, I didn’t feel that the role was that important.”
Pouille said he was encouraged by the belief Mauresmo showed in him when she left such a high-profile opportunity behind.
“That’s what I wanted to have with me: someone who believes in me, and who believes we can go very far together,” Pouille said. “I’m very happy that she’s part of it now, and we can work together, we can have the best results possible.”
Pouille is the only man in the ATP Tour’s top 100 currently coached by a woman outside his immediate family, but he said Mauresmo’s gender was not a consideration in his decision to hire her.
“For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man, woman, grandfather, grandmother — I don’t care,” he said. “As long as they know what they’re talking about. In women’s sports or men’s sports, in the end you’re dealing with the same stuff on the court.
Mauresmo raising a fist to celebrate Pouille’s first-round win. Pouille said he chose Mauresmo as his coach because he was looking for “someone who believes in me, and who believes we can go very far together.”
“Mentally, it’s the same stuff. Technically, she knows tennis. She knows what I need to do on the court to be better. For me, that’s what is important.”
Pouille’s choice of Mauresmo was the second high-profile hiring of a female coach in men’s tennis this decade. The first was in 2014, when Andy Murray also hired Mauresmo.
Pouille’s decision generated far less second-guessing than Murray’s, which was met with skepticism from both the news media and fellow players.
“The pressure with Andy was tremendous, and the criticism that went with it was huge,” Mauresmo said. “I knew I had a lot to prove, and I knew that every match he would play would be about the job I’d done, or not done, or could do better. That was making it pretty difficult, but pretty challenging as well, and I worked really, really hard.”
Pouille said many of the queries that came with his choice were more inane than negative.
“A lot of people have asked me: ‘Is it different that she’s a woman? What do you do — can she come in the locker room?’” he said. “But what is important is what’s happening on court, what’s happening to get ready for the match, and what happens after the match. I don’t care who is in the locker room.”
Pouille said that, for now, he appreciated the lack of wasted time in his practice sessions with Mauresmo, and also her drive and willingness to join him in his various fitness and running drills.
“You can see on the court that she’s a champion,” he said. “The way she is on the court, the way she’s committed to it, it’s just remarkable.”
Pouille is hoping that Mauresmo’s coaching can help him return to the top 10. Over the past three decades, French men’s tennis has packed the sport’s peloton, but it has struggled to catapult anyone into regular championship contention.
Pouille is one of five active Frenchmen who can claim to have made the top 10, joining Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, Gaël Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Together, they have reached only one Grand Slam final in the past decade: when Tsonga finished as the runner-up at the 2008 Australian Open.
Mauresmo says she probably has particular credibility in French tennis as a two-time Grand Slam singles champion and a former No. 1 player, accomplishments that outshine those of all the country’s other players — male or female — in her lifetime. But she is uncertain whether most men would be ready to hire a woman with less than hall-of-fame credentials.