Humbert: A Piano Man & Rising French Star
Editor’s Note: Ugo Humbert beat Daniil Medvedev on Tuesday at the Hamburg European Open for his first Top 10 win. This feature was originally published on 1 November 2019.
If you head to a tournament hotel when the ATP Tour is in town, many times players can be found in their rooms studying tapes on a future opponent, watching tennis and other sports on television, or even playing video games. But if there’s a grand piano around, don’t be surprised if Frenchman Ugo Humbert is at the keys.
“I started with my sister. At the same time, I started tennis,” said Humbert, who competed in the 2019 Next Gen ATP Finals. “I love music. I play a little bit of electric guitar, but I’m better at piano.”
Humbert began playing the piano when he was five. From the age of 12, when he trained with the French Federation in Poitiers, to when he later began practising in Paris, there was always one constant in the Frenchman’s life: a piano in his room. When the mild-mannered lefty’s days would come to an end, he’d sit down and play.
“When you play piano, you are only with you,” Humbert said. “It’s great to have the time to be alone, to enjoy. In tennis, it’s the opposite.”
The same way tennis players lock into a ‘zone’ on the court, Humbert gets into a ‘zone’ dancing across the keys. The 22-year-old, who was the last player to miss out on a spot in the 2018 Next Gen ATP Finals, doesn’t have one song he likes playing the most. But he favours ‘Boogie Boogie’ as well as the theme songs for Titanic and James Bond.
Is Humbert tennis’ version of James Bond? That idea elicits a laugh from the Milan qualifier. Humbert does not see himself as anyone else.
“I’m Ugo,” Humbert said, cracking a smile.
But back home in France, people tell him that he has almost a throwback game.
“I’m an aggressive player. I serve well, have a good, flat backhand and I can go to the net to finish the point,” Humbert said. “They compare me to Guy Forget and Henri Leconte, I’m a mix.”
Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert first played Humbert on the ATP Challenger Tour in July 2018, before the rising star cracked the Top 200 of the ATP Rankings for the first time. Humbert defeated Herbert in straight sets, and then did so again less than three months later to win the Ortisei Challenger, using that result to earn himself a spot inside the world’s Top 100 for the first time.
“He almost has no weaknesses. He can do almost everything and when he has a small weakness, he’s working on it… He has a really good serve, an amazing backhand, a really solid forehand, he’s an aggressive player. He takes some time off you and it’s really tough to play against him,” Herbert said. “I think one of the most important things for him is going to be to stay fit because I think he has the energy to work and he wants to be better and you can see it day-by-day when he’s training.”
Humbert showed plenty of progress in 2019, reaching his first three ATP Tour semi-finals. But perhaps Humbert’s biggest breakthrough came at Wimbledon. In just his first tour-level season competing on grass, the Frenchman came from two sets down against countryman Gael Monfils in the first round and later ousted fellow #NextGenATP player Felix Auger-Aliassime in the third round before bowing out to eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
“It was a great experience. I played three times on Court 1. It was just unbelievable,” Humbert said. “There were a lot of people. I’m very happy to see the public and get to entertain the crowd.”
In his next tournament, Humbert kept his momentum going on the grass in Newport, where he made his second tour-level semi-final, losing against American John Isner, who was highly complimentary of his opponent.
“He serves very well. He’s a very effective server, a lefty, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Isner said. “He’s only 21 years old, so that [confidence] comes with winning matches. He’s growing in confidence and growing in belief.”
Humbert has climbed as high as World No. 41 this year, a marked improvement considering he began September 2017 outside the Top 700. He lifted his first ATP Tour trophy in Auckland this January. According to Herbert, Humbert still has plenty of room to grow.
“That’s what’s nice about him: you have no idea where he can stop. I think he can be an amazing player. I think he has a lot to achieve yet. He was not far from going to the final in Newport, he played the second week at Wimbledon,” Herbert said. “I think he can go far.”
Last season was Humbert’s first on the ATP Tour, and he has greatly enjoyed getting to travel to different cities and see the tournaments he has heard about growing up. And the more time Humbert spends under the spotlight, the more he will get used to competing against the best players in the world, which is something that he embraces.
“I enjoy every moment to play on the big courts,” Humbert said. “That’s why I play tennis.”
At his roots though, Humbert is the guy you can find at the hotel piano, manouevring his fingers along the keys. As devastating as his game could be off the court, he is equally elegant off of it, and that shows in his kind, polite personality, too.
“One of the things you can feel with him is he is really nice,” Herbert said. “What I can feel is his humility and his humility also brings him the energy to go back to work and to get better every day and I think it’s one of the things that helped him make some big progress.”