In 1993, the Frenchman created quite a sensation by reaching the final in Flushing Meadows. But rather than evoking the quality of his backhand, the american media mainly wondered if his coach would be watching the match from the stands. Henri Dumont had flown back to France a few days earlier and was giving him his advice over the phone. Focus on a unique player-coach relationship.
On September 12th, 1993, the Louis-Armstrong court looked a little empty for the first US Open semi-final between Willy Masur and Cédric Pioline. The confrontation between the thirty-year old Australian and his anachronistic serve and volley and this slightly limping Frenchman who looks like he’s just been taken out of bed is not of big interest for the New-York crowd. Which is mainly waiting for Pete Sampras’ arrival, as he prepares to face the original Aleksandr Volkov. The American journalists, on their side, have started to work on the number 15 seed’s biography during this US Open. A few days earlier, Pioline had defeated Jim Courier in the fourth round. But who is this « unknown Frenchman » as the New-York Times had called him ? At 24, Pioline had just reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, but the main interest around him is his particular relationship with his coach.
Appearance of a seminarian and praising slowness
When, he defeated the ex-world number 1, the Parisian didn’t have a coach. « He went back to France for work », said Pioline during a press conference. A coach who « abandons » his player in the middle of a Grand Slam tournament, enough to be surprised and disconcerted. But the ones who think that certainly know nothing about the relationship between these two characters. The son of a couple of volley-ball players (his mother was even an international player for Romania), Pioline was ranked around the 400th spot, and already in his twenties, when he met Henri Dumont in 1989. The latter had a degree in psychology and was working for the French Tennis Federation as a regional technical advisor in Bordeaux. « Dumont is an eccentric who wasn’t really seen with a good eye in Paris, recalls Pioline. He considered that he was underemployed by the FFT. He never reached the highest level as a player, which remained a little suspicious for the family of tennis. But this 35-year old man, who looked like a seminarian, would go on to find in me the fertile ground to develop his methods. »
In four years, his pupil went from the lower satellite tournaments (after a lost final, he had to go on a 24h train journey between Sarajevo and Paris as he couldn’t afford a flight), to almost reaching the Top 10. With a psychology vocabulary, Dumont talks about his method call « motivational management ». It’s based on two points : visualizing what you want to achieve, and then, reducing the gap between the project and reality. « In fact, it’s working on the basics, like the first serve, or the down-the-line backhand. » But the man didn’t only work on the mind, and deeply changed his student’s game, and especially his famous backhand. He forced him to practice his hits as slowly as possible to decompose the gesture. « It’s by being forced to play slowly that I found the right gesture, recalls the player in his autobiography. I was clay between his hands and the instrument of his revenge. I didn’t realize this at first, but when I did, how important it was, it made me improve so much ! »
« I don’t know. It’s a long journey »
A progression which is achieved from distance. As Henri Dumont also works for a consulting firm based in Toulouse. And as there were no mobile phones then, Pioline left rather large phone bills in every hotel which he stayed in. The day before his match against Courier, the Frenchman had spent a few minutes speaking to his coach, who was back home, over the phone. But the latter insisted on not giving him a precise plan. « I had to be curious, and not be in a position where I expected the solution to arrive easily, » remembers the player. After his qualification for the final, a journalist asked him if he expected his coach to be in the stands for the event. The answer was vague : « I don’t know, it’s a long journey. I need to call him. » The finalist wasn’t left on his own in New-York, as his best friend Pierre Cherret and his physio Luc Pausiclès were with him.
The next day, Henri Dumont boarded on the first flight and arrived a few hours before his protégé’s final. Impassive in the stands, he watched Sampras winning his second US Open after a impressive display. The finalist’s reality check was a little complicated. Dumont had conceived an unbreakable bubble around him. He exteriorized no emotions on the court, and had to speak as little as possible with journalists. Pioline felt that he was perceived as a haughty and distant character. On the court, it didn’t go as expected his year 1994 was almost exclusively marked by defeats, with of course, a big fall in the world ranking. Tired of this distance relationship and Dumont’s influence on him, he decided to end their collaboration. After a short dry period, he reached the semi-finals at the US Open once again, in 1999 (defeated by Todd Martin). Between the two, Pierre Cherret had become his main coach, and was present alongside him on all tournaments. Enough to finally unplug the phone.