There was cause for celebration toward the end of the first set for Gilles Simon. Throughout the first 20 minutes of the semi-final against Marin Cilic, the Frenchman had been tormented by the brute force and power of the towering top seed, who had raced to a 5-0 lead. But in the sixth game, Simon finally held serve.
Up went the arms, as he egged on the crowd that had till then been firmly in Cilic’s corner. So far in the match, it was the only feel-good factor for him.
The very next point, Cilic served an ace at 226 kmph – the fastest of the tournament – and would take just over a minute more to finish off the set 6-1. But by that time, something had clicked in Simon’s game. After the break, the 33-year-old began a defiant comeback that saw him counter and overcome the world no 6’s brawn with his own repertoire of bold and carefree, yet exquisite, groundstrokes.
Eventually, despite losing the first set in 27 minutes, Simon secured a place for himself in the final of the Tata Open Maharashtra with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 win.
No point, however, was more bewildering than the one he pulled off to earn a second break in the third set. Cilic did everything right in that point. Trailing 0-40 and 2-4, he launched a wide 205kmph serve that Simon just about got a racquet to. The 6-foot-6 Croat raced up to the net and struck a clean forehand deep into Simon’s forehand side. It looked a perfect winner but the Frenchman covered the distance well, leapt and played a cross-court forehand pass on the run, mid-air.
It was an astonishing shot and he had done something similar in his previous match against Ricardo Ojeda Lara on Thursday. “When I have a down, I feel hopeless on the court,” he had said after the 6-2, 6-3 quarterfinal win. “And then in sometime I can hit this passing shot on the run, when I hit full power without thinking. And then I’m pretty relaxed.”
Power and aggression
From the world no 89’s demeanour on court, you wouldn’t expect much power and aggression. He’s six feet tall and weighs 69 kgs: a lightweight in a sport that is progressively being populated by bigger, more muscular athletes. He has a lacklustre way of moving on court, and doesn’t have much of a jump on his serve, which usually hovers around the 170 kmph mark. But he’s deceptively athletic and makes his shots look effortless. What makes him dangerous though is his versatility and unpredictability. A shrewd and experienced campaigner, he knows how to play to his strengths. “When playing my best, my strength is the ability to change my level. I can play slow and run right and left for a long time, but finally I can hit it very hard, very fast. I like playing that way. If I try to hit the ball very hard all the time, there’s no surprise,” Simon had told a French publication.
By the second set, he started changing with the pace, spin and angles of his shots – making sure each ball was hit deep. It frustrated Cilic who began to rush into his shots and make unforced errors. The mistakes started piling up and cost the 29-year-old early in the very first game of the second set. Trying to save a break, Cilic set himself up to play a regulation inside-out forehand but could only find the net. “He (Simon) started putting more balls back in play and I started to lose some rhythm in the rallies,” said Cilic. “Maybe I could have waited a bit to play the right shots, but I’m still rusty at the beginning of the year.”
Last season, the Croat, who won the 2014 US Open, reached the final at Wimbledon. Former world number 6 Simon, in contrast, had a poor season and ended it with a negative win-loss ratio (16-25). He was even left out from the French team in the final of the Davis Cup, which they won after 16 years. “I didn’t have a good year, so they left me out of the final and I got a chance to rest before the season,” he said.
As he attempts to regroup and revive his career, the run to the final in Pune has provided the perfect start. Before Cilic, he got past the defending champion and world no 20 Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets. And by beating the top seed for the sixth time in their seven meetings, he rightfully earned the crowd’s support by the end of the cleverly executed semi-final.
Anderson through to final.
After scraping through two rounds of the Maharashtra Open, Kevin Anderson needed another three sets to progress to the final. The world no 14 registered a 6-7, 7-6, 6-1 win over mercurial Frenchman Benoit Paire.
The inconsistent South African, who had reached the final of the US Open last year, had to once again rely on his serve to dig him out of difficult situations, as he fired 26 aces. Paire, who had come to the tournament without much preparation as he was injured during the off-season, was struggling with blisters on his playing right hand.