Pierre-Hugues Herbert’s service action is a sight to behold. There is a high toss, bent knees, an exaggerated arched back, and a massive back swing of the racquet. If you freeze that sight in a polaroid moment, you might picture one of the bronze statues depicting the heroes of yesteryear.
Herbert himself says his serving style is a cross between the styles of Pete Sampras and John McEnroe. “My dad was a big fan of Sampras and also McEnroe, maybe he put a bit of it in my serve,” he offers. The service action is flamboyant, yet majestic. Typical French. But Herbert’s serve isn’t just there for cosmetic effect – he does pack a punch.
The 26-year-old Frenchman started off his second round match against Yuki Bhambri at the Tata Open Maharashtra with an ace clocking 204 kmph (his highest would go up to 213). It was also the first of 13 he’d hammer in his 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win. And on the day, at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, it was his most potent weapon, as he’d use it to bail himself out of seven break points.
“When you have a big serve, you can count on it to win the big points,” says the World No.81, who is ranked 13 in doubles.
He won some of the biggest points in his career in November, when he helped France end their 16-year-wait for a Davis Cup title, winning the crucial doubles rubber with Richard Gasquet in the final against Belgium.
“It was the best experience of my tennis career,” he says. “It gives you that extra energy when you end the year with a Davis Cup title.”
This was France’s fourth final after they won the title in 2001 – they lost to Marat Safin’s Russia in 2002, Novak Djokovic’s Serbia in 2010 and Roger Federer’s Switzerland in 2014. But the French have always been a squad filled with top quality players that somehow haven’t quite achieved much at the tour level. In the Grand Slams singles, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga has been the only one to reach a final so far: he lost to Djokovic at the Australian Open in 2008. But after the win at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, there comes an inspiration to break that barrier.
“It changes something and makes you realise a lot of things,” Herbert says. “We hadn’t won Davis Cup for so many years, and now we did. So maybe, for Jo, Lucas (Pouille), Richard or anyone else, it is going to help us reach higher, be better this year.”
But despite the glory of the win, there is a truth that cannot be overlooked when comparing the Davis Cup to the Slams. At the final in November, Belgium’s highest ranked player David Goffin – who came to the competition after finishing runner-up at the ATP Tour Finals a week earlier – won his country two singles rubbers in the best-of-five Davis Cup final.
“You have to be realistic,” says Gilles Simon, who played in the first round tie against Japan. “Goffin was playing much better and won two points (in the team event). And then we will face him again in the Slams, so it’s not that easy.”
And in their matches on Wednesday, both Herbert and Simon hit the right form, with the latter ousting defending champion and World No.20 Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets to move into the quarterfinal of the ATP 250 event. But both draw great inspiration from that night in Lille. “When you are successful, you get nice pictures and stories about you from people even if it isn’t true,” Simon says, smiling. “When you win, everything is different.”
French tennis has hit an upward curve, at least in Pune. Along with Benoit Paire, there are three Frenchmen in the singles quarterfinals. But at the moment, they’re at the start of the season with all four Slams of the year yet to play.