Frenchman Lucas Pouille stands just one match away from a place in the top ten, which would be a career first for the 24-year-old. Hoping to deny him is Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut, for whom the Dubai Tennis Championships would be the biggest title of his career. Both men have taken advantage of an unusually open draw in the desert to earn a shot at the title. But who will come out on top?
Pouille and Bautista Agut have met three times so far in their careers. It was the Spaniard who won their first two meetings in 2015, winning in straight sets first in the St Petersburg quarterfinals and then at the same stage in Moscow a week later. Pouille, however, had his revenge a year later at the US Open in the third round. The Frenchman won a high quality five set clash, rallying from a set down twice to come through 3-6 7-5 2-6 7-5 6-1 and went on to reach the quarterfinals.
Path to the final
Pouille began his Dubai campaign against former world #10 and French Open semifinalist Ernests Gulbis. The Latvian is not the player he was but can still be a dangerous opponent and Pouille did well to defeat him in straight sets 6-4 6-4. Pouille then had his revenge on Karen Khachanov who last week defeated him in the Marseille final. In the quarterfinals he recovered from dropping the first set against Yuichi Sugita to win in three and then accounted for Filip Krajinovic in the semifinals in a tight three set clash, winning 6-3 6-7 7-6.
Bautista Agut opened against the wily German veteran Florian Mayer, defeating him in straight sets 6-3 6-4. He then faced off against Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert. They split the opening two sets, but Bautista Agut finished strongly, dropping just one game in the decider. Croatia’s Borna Coric awaited him in the quarterfinals and Bautista Agut put in a good performance to win 7-6 6-4. He then defeated surprise semifinalist Malek Jaziri, the Tunisian wild card, 6-3 6-4, recovering from a break down in the second set to win in straights.
How do they match up?
From early on in his career the French Tennis Federation were excited about Pouille’s potential, and it is easy to see why. The 24-year-old is an incredibly clean ball striker and possesses a pleasing all-court game. His forehand is the major weapon. When given time to dictate with the shot there are few more potent weapons than that which Pouille can unleash, but it is also a useful rallying shot. His backhand, whilst not as effective as his forehand, is still a good shot, although Pouille can press too hard with it costing him unforced errors.
His first serve, whilst not huge, is effective and usually fairly accurate and Pouille is also a fine volleyer. His transition game is a real strength, with him using both forehand and slice backhands to get into the forecourt well. Bautista Agut arguably lacks Pouille’s natural talent, but the Spaniard has an excellent approach to the game in terms of work ethic. He, like many of his countrymen, has maximised his potential and built a fine career, where many lesser players would have faltered.
His movement is his biggest strength. Though he is not an elite defender like his compatriot Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, his court coverage is none-the-less very impressive. Though neither his forehand nor his backhand are massive weapons they are reliable, and the Spaniard rarely gives away a costly number of unforced errors. However, he will likely have to play more aggressively than usual to defeat Pouille as if he allows the Frenchman too much rhythm it is hard to see him walking away with the title.
Pouille, normally excellent in finals, disappointed last week against Karen Khachanov. But he has given himself the chance to rectify that at the first-time of asking and should have enough to do so. Bautista Agut is a fine player, but it is hard to see how he can do enough to hurt Pouille. The Frenchman won’t have it easy, but he has enough quality, and crucially enough variety, to overcome Bautista Agut’s challenge. Pouille in straight sets.
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