by James Buddell
Frenchman Gilles Simon is on the verge of the Top 10 again, determined to develop a big game to ensure he achieves success on the sport’s grandest stages.
You’ll know where to find Gilles Simon at Roland Garros, shortly before his match is called onto court. He’ll be one of the players sleeping on the sumptuous burgundy-coloured leather sofas in the locker room. Relaxed, saving his energy, he’ll be topping up the 10 hours of sleep he needs per day. He will have eaten his favoured “original” meal of meat, rice and pasta hours before, while the Head racquets in his bag will have been re-gripped and the frames strung at his desired 24.5 kilograms (54lbs) tension. Thierry Tulasne, his full-time coach since 2007, will have not left anything to chance, discussing Plans A, B & C. Physical trainer Paul Quetin’s job will be complete.
“It is very rare to find a player as relaxed as Gilles before matches”
“It is very rare to find a player as relaxed as Gilles before matches - in the locker room or at lunch,” Tulasne told DEUCE at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. “As a player, I tried to be nice and relaxed before I played, but I felt butterflies in my stomach. Sometimes Gilles’ mind isn’t on the match early enough. He should feel the pressure. An hour before the match, I sometimes ask him to ‘feel the pressure’, to be ready the minute he steps on the court.” There is no doubt, with Tulasne by his side, Simon has the right man. “There was an enormous amount of pressure on every French player when I played,” explained the former World No. 10. “That is why, I feel, we work well together. Everything he feels, I felt. I can help him deal with those pressures. Yannick Noah found the right way to play in Paris. He is one of my best friends and I use his experience for Gilles.”
In the 30 minutes until Simon strides out on the court all French players love, Court Philippe Chatrier, he will be nervous. He’ll be happy with his preparations, but anxious he may not perform as he will hope. “I am nervous when I play at Roland Garros,” Simon told DEUCE, in the players’ lounge, at the Foro Italico. “It is a very important tournament to me and I care about how I perform there. When the tournament is important, you want to do something good. That is why it is difficult, because sometimes you don’t perform well.”
That fear, has distracted him - and every French player down the years - the most. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be in the locker room, having spent time on the physio’s table; his great friend from juniors, Gael Monfils, will be stretching with resistance ropes, bouncing around or applying strapping up his knees, while Richard Gasquet will be getting loose and mentally preparing. Simon’s wife, Carine, and their son, Timothé, will be in the stands and the World No. 12 will have none of his beloved PlayStation computer games to let his mind drift. Just himself and the vision of player activity as he counts down the minutes to the Referees’ call to action.
Simon handled the pressure admirably 12 months ago, in victories overJeremy Chardy and Mardy Fish on Roland Garros’ main show court, en route to the fourth round. Over the past seven years, the patriotic Frenchman has gotten used to the attention he has received. “I have gotten used to the pressure and the attention surrounding it,” said Simon. “I feel much more confident and stronger on the court. I am improving every year. Last season, I had a great feeling on the court reaching the fourth round.” But the start of each Roland Garros is different. As each year passes, the shadow cast by the emotional scenes surrounding Noah’s triumph in 1983, grows. Ten Frenchman are listed in the Top 100 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings. Each player hopes to shine in late May on their grandest stage.
“Gilles doesn’t suffer from the attention Jo, Gael and Richard receive”
Among his compatriots, Simon is ‘Mr Consistent’. He has won 10 ATP World Tour singles titles - the most among active Frenchmen - which includes a run of trophy-winning success over six straight seasons (2007-2012). But Simon doesn’t have the personality of Tsonga or Monfils, whose power and athletic games ignite galleries worldwide, nor does he possess the elegance of Gasquet, whose classic technique pleases the sport’s purists. As a result, Simon is happy with the attention he receives. “With their personalities they attract crowds,” he said. “I am okay with it.”
Edouard Roger-Vasselin told DEUCE, at the Estoril Open, “He doesn’t get the headlines like Jo, Gael or Richard, but he remains at the top of the game. He plays from the baseline. He doesn’t have spectacular shots like Jo’s serve, Richard’s serve or Gael’s flare. But whenever you play against Gilles, you know it’s going to be a tough match.” Tulasne confirmed to DEUCE, “Gilles doesn’t suffer from the attention Jo, Gael and Richard receive. He knows why. Jo and Gael are black, tall, big, strong and are charismatic. Gilles knows, for him, it is about his results. If he has a big result and portrays the right image, he will get the attention. He wants to be himself, he doesn’t want to be someone else.”
Simon has never hidden behind a mask. For Gasquet, Tsonga and Roger-Vasselin their abiding memory of “Gilou” as a junior is of a battler, prepared to endure any hardship to earn a win. Gasquet, who first met Simon when he was nine years old at a tournament in Bretagne, told DEUCE, “We played for three hours and I was destroyed. I had to pull out before my next match the following day.” Tsonga recalls, “I first met Gilles when I was 14 or 15 in Brest. We played a very long match!” Roger-Vasselin said, “I didn’t know him and he came over to me and started to say, ‘We’re playing our match over there.’ I thought he was a ball kid or something. He came back again and told me to go play.”
Yet, his talent wasn’t recognised by the French Tennis Federation until he was 19 years old. Gasquet remembers their first meetings, saying, “He always had the loopy forehand backswing and the same strengths as he has today. He never missed a ball. Gilles was quiet, friendly and very clever guy - even then.” Roger-Vasselin adds, “He was very small. I also won the next match against him, but his game was improving all the time. His game has always been based on his mental approach and the fact he can run for five hours without tiring.”
Of his junior career, Simon honestly admits, “I wasn’t good enough. I always played players far stronger than me. But I managed to improve my game and maintained the progression, despite being very skinny and small compared to other players. I always had my ability to anticipate; my feel for the game and see what was going on. As I wasn’t powerful, I was very aggressive when I was young. I played close to the baseline to control the point. But if my opponent was dominating, then I found it very tough and it was too difficult. I couldn’t do what I do right now, playing two to three metres behind the baseline, but I still hit powerful strokes.”
“I know if I can run then I have a good shot at winning”
In 2004, when the French Tennis Federation recognised Simon’s talent aged 19, Tulasne was charged with coaching a small group of players. He remembers his first impression, saying, “I was very surprised. He had a strange game. But he had one strength: he was an unbelievable runner. He was very fast and could maintain his on-court fitness for a long time. When I asked him what was his strength, he said, ‘I can run a lot, very fast.’ He was looking very confident. His physique and his confidence made me feel he could become a very good player.”
But it’s funny. Simon doesn’t like running too much off the court. “I just play my matches,” he confessed. “My game asks of me a lot. I have to run and cover the court. I don’t like running outside of the court.” Simon concedes that he may run for 45 minutes per day during a rare training block, but most of the time Quetin gets him to undertake 20-second interval training at different paces. Cycling is also favoured, but he isn’t a regular in tournament gyms. “I don’t like lifting weights too much [although he can lift 100 kilograms]. As tennis players you must work to your strengths and weaknesses, if a player is quick or powerful. My strength is I am able to cover the court unlike many players are unable to do. My body frame is slight and I know I will never be as naturally powerful as [Juan Martin] del Potro, for example.”
Today, one thing is certain, Simon makes the most of his 70-kilogram frame. Only Kei Nishikori, at No. 18 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, is the same weight among the Top 50. Simon can absorb pressure and dictate play with his flat backhand, while he has the ability to apply tremendous spin on his forehand wing. His net game is also an asset now. “One of his strengths is that he wants to improve his technique,” explains Tulasne. “He can do it, because he is talented. Because he doesn’t have the power, he has to win matches tactically. He may have to play for one hour, but once he gets the tactics right, he’ll win. He plays good first sets and the third sets, when his superior fitness counts.”
It comes as a surprise to Simon, a player so tactically adept and confident in debating a variety of subjects, that he does not know he possesses an exceptional record in winning first sets. According to the FedEx ATP Reliability Index, Simon has compiled a 23-1 record after winning first sets during the 2012 ATP World Tour season (as of 22 May) and is 193-27 (.877) lifetime. He insists, “Most of the time, I don’t get off to a good start. When my opponent is taller and stronger, hitting harder than me, I do find it tricky and complicated. When their levels drop, I am able to turn the matches around. That’s when, even when I win the first set, I know that if my opponent does come back, I will be ready to play long matches.”
Simon is certainly ready to make his move back into the Top 10.Currently at World No. 12, six spots off his career-high South African Airways ATP Rankings of No. 6 on 5 January 2009, the 27 year old has already lifted his third BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy in Bucharest last month. To play his best tennis, Simon confessed, “The conditions have to be good. For example, I need to be fit physically, so then I know I can run everywhere. As soon as I don’t have that feeling, then I know I can’t play my best tennis because my ability to cover the court is the key to my game. I am not two metres tall, so unlike most players, not hitting my serve well doesn’t affect my confidence. It doesn’t matter what court I play on, or who the opponent is, I know if I can run then I have a good shot at winning. If my opponent starts to hit winners, then I have to run and find solutions: to be more aggressive, if I am defending too much.”
“If I only do what I know, I will never become a better player”
And there is the rub. How do you transform a natural defender into an attacker overnight? You can’t, but after the US Open in September 2011, Simon started experimenting, explaining to Tulasne, ‘If I want to get better than No. 5 and I don’t try things, then I won’t become better than I was before.’ Tulasne, who previously coached Sebastien Grosjean and Paul-Henri Mathieu, confirmed this plan to DEUCE. “He tried to attack and be more relaxed during the match. He still feels the Top 4 are a level above the rest and that is why he is working hard to get to No. 5. He says, ‘If I only do what I know, I will never become a better player.’ So he is trying more things on the court, both tactically, technically and mentally. He wants to be more confident. Now, he has developed greater strengths and I do feel he will get to a higher level.”
Tsonga confesses, “Gilles’ greatest strength is getting to every ball. Even balls that are impossible. He makes his opponents play one extra shot, which maybe they don’t want to play.” Mikhail Youzhny told DEUCE, “He is a very good player and is always close to the Top 10. The level of his game is very high and it is admirable he has returned to near the Top 10 after his injuries. It shows the calibre of the player, just like del Potro. He has very good hands and he is quick and athletic enough to counteract the big servers.”
Simon has always liked to make it difficult for his opponent’s to beat him, but now, “I just think my level is high, between a ranking of No. 8 and No. 15. I have to work hard on my game to be in the group between No. 5 and No. 8. At the moment, No. 12 is my level, but if I am able to play a full season, without any injuries, I know I can make the second group in the Top 10. Some weeks will be harder than others. I think the Rankings are very good in tennis, because you have the points you’ve won for one year. I feel like you have the ranking you deserve, as it shows the level you’re game is at. You can’t be a World No. 1 or No. 20 through luck, it is because of your consistency. You can’t be No. 10 because of three good weeks in one year. The ATP World Tour, now, is very difficult, but I like the challenge.”
For Simon, the goal is not to take media attention from Tsonga, Monfils and Gasquet, but to harness his on-court energy and fulfil his desire to regain “the capacity to win every match that I felt in 2008”. Only then, can dreams of major championship glory, performing well for France at the Olympics and Davis Cup, or qualifying for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, be potentially realised. “I need to find it again,” he said. “If I can, I know I will do even better and improve my career-high No. 6 ranking.”