Think French tennis and the flamboyance and creativity of Noah, Santoro, Tsonga, Monfils and Gasquet readily come to mind. But in a land where playing style is not so much issued as created, Gilles Simon has found that there is a place for cunning defence.
There are ballboys who look more physically imposing than Gilles Simon. His nickname, after all, is “Poussin,” the French word for “small”. Simon likes it that way and thrives on knowing he is often underestimated by his opponents - all the better for the 5’ 11”, 155 pound Simon to catch them off-guard and delicately seize control of the match in his distinctive, counterpunching manner.
Simon has just lost a match at the BNP Paribas Open, the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells, California. Talking with most players following a loss usually requires caution. But while Simon is subdued, he is simultaneously serious and humorous. Asked what’s good to know about him, Simon smiles and says, “There is nothing you should know.” Asked what makes his game effective, Simon offers an impish reply. “You tell me,” he says before issuing a response. “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.”
Surprise has been an asset for Simon, best demonstrated by the subtle, tortoise-like progression of his career. Since turning pro at the age of 17 in 2002, he has inched his way up the South African Airways ATP Rankings, from 480 at the end of ’03 to 124 at the end of ’05, cracking the Top 30 two years later, thoroughly earning his stripes as a respectable pro.
But in 2008, Simon made a grand leap, vaulting to No. 7 in the world, capturing three singles titles. Perhaps more significantly, he earned two wins over Roger Federer – including one at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup – and another against Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Madrid in what was one of the finest matches of the year and Simon’s career highlight. According to Fox and Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob, “It’s a real thinking man’s game he plays, a very smart ability to move the ball around and make his opponent play tough shots.”
“I’ve become more consistent in every part of my game,” says Simon. “I got used to bringing more intensity, to being satisfied not just with a good effort but thinking I can win. My head used to be too tight. But those kind of wins helped me very much. You gain experience. My coach [ex-pro Thierry Tulasne] helped me, but you really have to do this yourself.”
Autonomous as any tennis player must be, Simon has also fortunately come of age in a remarkable tennis nation. France has a long tradition of fine tennis players that goes all the way back to the Four Musketeers, a quartet of Hall of Famers whose success triggered the building of Roland Garros in the 1920s. Most recently, Simon is part of a foursome all born within two years of each other. Besides Simon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils have in the past two years each cracked the Top 10. “We are very close, we grew up together,” says Simon, who has been practising with Tsonga and Monfils for more than a decade. As juniors they often roomed together at French training centers. At times this familiarity can be a challenge. As Tsonga said after beating Simon in three sets at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, “It's tough all the time to play against a friend. You have to separate your sentiment. When you are on the court you have to see your friend as like another player.”
Fraternal familiarity among the French men took a beguiling turn earlier this year when Simon took on Monfils in the round of 16 of the Australian Open. Though they’d practised with one another hundreds of times, this was their first encounter as pros. Monfils’ plan was to hit the ball as soft as possible in an effort to draw even softer replies from Simon that he in turn could attack. “It’s hard for each of us to generate pace,” says Simon, “and Gael and I know each other so well. His serve is better than mine, but mostly we play quite similarly.”
If a tennis aficionado might view Monfils’ slowball plan as yet another form of chess, to the general viewer and the courtside fans it was uncertain what exactly was going on. Says Simon: “It looked like it was going to be a long, long match. We had these 40-50 ball rallies. I could hear people laughing. But tennis is a mental game.” In just under two hours, Simon took a two sets to one lead, at which point Monfils retired with an injury – and Simon had reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final. Though he’d lose 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 to Nadal, he was grateful to have justified his seeding.
As you might expect from a nation with as rich an artistic history as France, Simon is pleased that he and his peers have been able to build distinctive playing styles that reflect their disparate personalities and physical assets. Gasquet’s sizzling backhand, Tsonga’s forceful offence, Monfils mix of defence and offence and Simon’s chess-like style are all proof of a land where a playing style is not so much issued as created. As former pro and current French coach Georges Goven says, “We care about the fundamentals but we also encourage players to find the way that works for them.”
In a pleasing thematic coincidence, the defensive-orientated Simon’s father Daniel works in the insurance business. His mother, Mireille, is a doctor. Neither played tennis. Growing up in Nice, Simon was drawn to the game at the age of six, inspired most of all by American Michael Chang, who barely two years earlier had won at Roland Garros. “I was really small when I was young,” says Simon. Another player he admired was the Frenchman Nicolas Escude, particularly his fluid backhand and ability to mesmerise opponents. Says Simon, “I like defence way more. It’s harder for me to move forward. Even in football, I like the goalie, like defending.”
Asked what he might be if he’d never been a tennis player, Simon puffs out his cheeks, lets out a breath, blows out his tongue, stares up at the wall and makes a concession. “That is a difficult question,” he says. “Your teacher asks what you want to be and all I can think of is tennis. All my life all I can remember nothing but wanting to be a tennis player.”
Away from tennis, Simon likes to conserve as much energy as possible. “It’s this simple,” he says, “I like to do nothing. I’m a lazy man. Okay, I like playing video games. And look at me, look at these arms: Do you really think I lift weights?”
But as 2009 wears on, he faces a new challenge. For much of his career, Simon has been under the radar. But now he’s a Top 10 player, and nowhere will the spotlight be shined on him more brilliantly than when he comes to play his national championship at Roland Garros. In four attempts, Simon has won but one match on the clay. As he points out, growing up, French players only play on clay two months a year, training most frequently on hard courts.
But even more, he concedes, comes the pressure of competing on his native soil. “The first round is hard,” says Simon. “All the French want to play their best. But maybe, like Gael last year [who made a surprise run to the semis], if I can play better round by round, then, maybe magic.” But at this stage it’s not likely anyone is underestimating Simon.