Gilles Simon needed to do something drastic to revive his career. He had been going through a torrid time in the 2017 season, and would eventually drop from a world rank of 25 at the start to 89. So in September, the 33-year-old decided to tackle the already lonely tennis tour solo.
“I decided to be alone after the US Open,” said the introspective Frenchman, who was looking for an upward swing in his steadily dwindling career. And in Pune, he’s found that spark in the very first week of the 2018 season.
Playing against Kevin Anderson, in the singles final of the Tata Open Maharashtra, Simon cut the towering 6-foot-8 South African down to size with a 7-6, 6-2 win. It was his first ATP title since his win at the Marseille Open in February 2015, and his maiden victory over Anderson in four meetings.
“It was a tough call to go alone and travel alone and come to India alone,” he says. “Not many players do this, so it’s nice to get some kind of reward for that.”
But there was not much time for him to celebrate the win. Barely an hour after scripting the win over the 2017 US Open finalist, Simon teamed up with compatriot Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the doubles final. But he was unable to continue his winning streak, falling to Dutch pair Robin Haase and Matwe Middelkoop 6-7, 6-7.
This tournament however, will be remembered for the way he sliced through the singles draw. Simon’s run was littered with roadblocks. In his second round match, he came up against defending champion and world no 20 (third seed) Roberto Bautista Agut. In the semi-final, he outplayed the powerful world no 6 (top seed) and 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic, before taking on the second seed in the final. Against the 6-foot-6 Cilic and Anderson, he was up against a similar type of opponent – powerful baseliners with massive forehands and big service games. But Simon slowed down the pace at ease, and made his opponents play on his terms.
“Players like them (Cilic and Anderson) drop bombs from that height and get 20 free points that I cannot,” Simon said after his semi-final win against Cilic. “I will never be able to win if I think about that, so I just focus on what I can do and what my strengths are.”
The cerebral Frenchman, all gangly arms and legs, is a master at using his opponents’ pace and redirecting it where it does the most damage. The forehand pass has been his most lethal, match-turning shot for him at the Balewadi Sports Complex. And it swung things around for him in the final as well. Simon had just managed to get back on serve in the first set tie-break at 4-3. In the next rally, Anderson steadily moved up the court to finish off the point. He placed what might have been a winner deep into Simon’s forehand court, only for the Frenchman to find the narrowest of gaps (considering Anderson’s wingspan) to squeeze the pass in and take a decisive 5-3 lead. To win the tie-break, he held his nerve and traded blows for a 39-shot rally, finishing it off with a forehand winner down the line. In the second set, Simon kept chipping at Anderson’s confidence and his biggest weapon, the serve. The 31-year-old South African registered a tournament high of 75 aces, including 15 in the final alone, but was still broken twice in the second set.
Seemingly languid and composed on court, the former world no 6, asserts that he actually never is. “I’m never relaxed when I’m on court. I look much more relaxed than what I am, so when I say I’m tired nobody understands,” he says.
But there was no mistaking the intensity to his game, nor the deception in his play, as he’d switch the pace and depth of his shots at will to whittle down Anderson’s challenge.
For a player who has beaten the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the past, the 2017 season steadily pushed him down the world rankings, and into the 80s – where he has never been since 2006. “Last season was difficult and I was hurting on the confidence side. I’m still far from perfect and my best.” In Pune though, the rested, refreshed Simon was at his battling best. Having arrived in India for the first time, all alone, he left lonely at the top.