The French certainly know how to put on a show. Whether it’s Gael Monfils’ explosive athleticism, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s infectious showmanship, Richard Gasquet’s groundstroke elegeance, or Benoit Paire’s entertaining unpredictability, the French are a popular bunch among tennis fans. As 2016 develops, a new character is forcing his way onto the ever-growing list of crowd-pleasing Frenchmen. His name is Pierre-Hughes Herbert.
The 25 year old may not be a household name amongst your average tennis fans but has established himself as a favourite for both players and hardcore fans alike. After their third round meeting at this year’s Australian Open – the farthest Herbert has progressed in the singles at a Grand Slam so far – Tsonga declared it “never easy playing against a guy you like”. David Goffin is another publicly declared friend of Herbert, taking to twitter to congratulate him and Mahut on their Monte Carlo Masters doubles title.
He is beginning to amass something of a public following as well. He received some rare off-court television air time after popping up in the stands during the Miami quarter-final between Goffin and fellow Frenchman Gilles Simon. Twitter struggled to mask its excitement. When ‘@livetennis’ tweeted a picture of Herbert in the stands and asked its followers if they knew who it was, they responded with a mixture of frantically excited capital letters and googly-eyed emojis.
@livetennis PIERRE-HUGUES ?
— Agnès Jb (@AgnesJoub) March 30, 2016
Part of his off-court popularity and on-court improvement hails from his successful romp around Asia in last year’s second edition of the International Premier Tennis League. An ever-present figure for the Japanese Warriors during the three week event, Herbert found himself in fine company. In his opening match he paired up with both Maria Sharapova and Kei Nishikori – lofty company considering his regular opponents on the challenger circuit. Later in the tournament he carried his team to their first victory, winning men’s doubles, mixed doubles and singles back-to-back. In fact, Herbert was unbeaten in his singles matches, defeating Tomas Berdych, Ivan Dodig and the big-serving Croat Ivo Karlovic.
Herbert’s talents extend far beyond the tennis court. Despite not attending University, the Frenchman is a talented linguist, speaking French, English, German and Spanish all to a high standard. On his ATP biography, Herbert says that if he wasn’t a tennis player he would be an actor. A career in musical theatre may be more in line with his talents though, as he confidently demonstrated with his rendition of ‘Aux Champs Elysees’ at the official dinner before last year’s Davis Cup clash with Great Britain.
As a junior, Herbert experienced relative success. Reaching a career high junior ranking of #9, Herbert walked away from the 2009 Wimbledon Championships with a Boys Doubles title under his arm. A few months later, in his final junior Grand Slam, he reached the semi-finals of the US Open singles before making the necessary step up onto the professional circuit. Supported by his parents – both of who were tennis coaches – Pierre embarked on his quest to crack the ATP Tour.
His style has always been of an unquestionably attacking nature. Herbert has always played on the edge, forcing his groundstrokes as close to the line as possible. The most notable and intriguing element of his game is without doubt the serve. With a motion echoing that of a certain Mr John McEnroe, it is considered in many tennis circles to be one of the most underrated serves on the ATP Tour in terms of both style, substance and success.
— Craig O’Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) March 26, 2016
Speaking of success, it would not initially come easily to the Frenchman. He would rise inside the top #500 within his opening year but then became something of a slow-burner, battling his way arduously through the futures circuit. He would not crack the top #200 until late in 2013. Over the next two years he began to gravitate towards the doubles circuit as his singles career stalled in the awkward limbo between #100 and #150 in the world. A top #100 doubles rankings would become a top #50 ranking in no time at all and as 2015 got underway, he found himself a seasoned and experienced partner in fellow Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. The two struck an instant bond, reaching the Australian Open final in their first Grand Slam together – which they lost. The tables would turn later in the year though, as they won their first title together at Queen’s before following that up with a maiden Grand Slam on the blue courts of Flushing Meadows.
Herbert also began to find some success on the court by himself. As summer came to an end, the Frenchman progressed past a whole host of ATP Tour regulars including Aljaz Bedene, Marcos Baghdatis and Steve Johnson to reach the final of the ATP 250 tournament in Winston Salem. Nevertheless, whilst he finished the calendar year inside the top #20 for doubles, his singles ranking was still languishing outside of the top #150.
During his successful ITPL stint, Pierre-Hughes Herbert expressed an ongoing desire to build on the experience to help carry his singles to the next level. With a third round appearance down in Melbourne alongside a Challenger title and qualification for the year’s four Masters events to date – Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, and Madrid – he is certainly on the right track. Herbert though, will most likely remember the spring of 2016 for a different and more successful reason than his singles escapades.
Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut became only the second pair to win the Sunshine Treble doubles titles as they swept past the opposition in Indian Wells, Miami and then Monte Carlo. The only othe pair to achieve this feat since the three tournaments aligned in the calendar back in 1987 was the Bryan Brothers in 2014. With both Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka both completing the Sunshine Double of Indian Wells and Miami, this superb achievement has gone disappointingly unrecognised.
During the three tournaments the Frenchmen needed to leave their chairs just six times for a deciding set tie-break – winning all six, including in the finals of both Miami and Monte Carlo. In the French principality, their opponents in the final were Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares. These four players are being touted as the major men’s doubles rivalry of 2016, with the two pairs separated by just 15 points in the Race to London at the end of the year. Herbert and Mahut also broke a fourty year duct, becoming the first all French pair to triumph in Monte Carlo since Guy Forget and Yannick Noah.
Currently, Pierre-Hughes Herbert seems to have found a perfect balance to both his game, and schedule. His week begins with singles and ends with some doubles and for the moment this is working effectively. The big dilemma – as was discovered by Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil – is how to deal with the dual nature of singles and doubles if success starts to come on both fronts. There is little doubt that he has the ability to sustain his doubles at its phenomenal standard, but with his singles on the rise – (he is just outside of the top #50 in the Race to the London) – there is every chance that he will face similar dilemmas in the future. Whichever path he opts to pursue, there is one thing that is unquestionable – he will do it with a smile on his face and the crowd behind his back.
Catch Herbert next in Madrid, where he has already won a pair of qualifying singles matches to reach the main draw. He and his partner Mahut are also the top doubles seed in the illustrious clay court tournament.