Gilles Simon has made great strides in 2008. He is currently ranked #10 in the world, has wins over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and has picked up 3 International Series titles on 3 different continents. This is a nice story and perhaps resembles other players who have scratched the top ten but never really threatened to win a major title. Simon may be that type of player. I saw him up close in the Indianapolis semifinals and finals. I was underwhelmed at first, but I have come to believe Simon could move into the ever growing top tier of men’s tennis now occupied by Nadal, Federer, Murray and Djokovic.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro also have chances to move into that top tier. Their power games might make for an easier path to the top than the one Simon must travel, but Simon seems to be solid on all surfaces and knows how to compete. Simon’s most impressive stretch of 2008 came in Indianapolis and Toronto. In Indianapolis, Simon was seeded second and defeated Nicholas Mahut, Benjamin Becker, Tommy Haas, Sam Querrey and 2007 champion Dmitry Tursunov in succession. All five of his victims in the Midwest were at least competent hard court players. In Toronto Simon beat Donald Young, Roger Federer (yes him), Jose Acasuso, and Marin Cilic before falling in the semifinals due as much to exhaustion as to Nicholas Kiefer in a 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 duel. Defeating 9 players in 11 days in two different cities on an extremely hot and unforgiving surface showed that Simon had mettle. Digging in from a break down in the 3rd set to defeat Roger Federer demonstrated that Simon has no fear or quit in him.
Since that 9 match streak Simon pushed del Potro to five sets in New York, won a title in Romania, and got to the final of Madrid beating Rafael Nadal along the way. Much like his win over Federer, Simon battled in a tough third set beating Rafa in front of a Spanish crowd. Prior to beating Rafa, Simon beat Igor Andreev, James Blake, Robby Ginepri, and Ivo Kalovic. A week later, Simon reached the semifinals in Lyons.
My read on Simon in Indianapolis was that he was fast, steady, and determined. His game reminds me of Mats Wilander’s to some extent. Among current players maybe he is a physically fit and determined Nalbandian as he can return serve well and change the pace and direction of the ball effectively. Maybe he is a poor man’s Andy Murray as he is not as tall or strong as Murray but can do a few of the same things. Simon has gotten to the top 10 by being steady and fighting, but can he go higher?
I think he can but has some work left to do. First, Simon has to get stronger. Maybe not to the extent Murray has, but added strength and a slightly bigger serve will make his solid return game even more effective. Second, he has to trim his schedule. To this point, Simon has played 27 tournaments in 2008. He is going to play Paris and wants to play the Masters Cup. 29 tournaments is a lot of travel time and a lot of tennis for a player to log. Simon now seems to expect to beat guys ranked lower than him even if they happen to be a Tommy Haas or Dmitry Tursunov. If he can routinely beat good players, his ranking will not depend upon playing so many events. Finally, Simon needs to make the most of the clay court season. Federer, Djokovic and Murray draw a lot of their water from the same surfaces. Tsonga and del Potro are not going to make their main living on clay either. Simon is not going to supplant Nadal on clay, but relative to the other surfaces the elite players are generally more vulnerable on the softer stuff. If Simon does well on clay in Paris, Rome, Monte Carlo and elsewhere he can pile up points some other top 10 players cannot consistently claim. This is particularly helpful for Simon because Indianapolis, Toronto and Madrid prove he can win points on faster surfaces too.
A more rested, stronger Simon can become a guy no one wants to play. He has beaten Rafa and Roger in close matches at Masters Series events. The next step will be a deep run at a Grand Slam event. Melbourne and Paris are both fertile ground for players with Simon’s steady determination. Gilles may even develop an intimidation factor if he piles up good results in bigger events. He will never scare anyone with his frame. However, if playing Simon is like going to the dentist most players will dread stepping on court with him. Nothing is written in stone, but with more strength, better scheduling and a few more good results Simon will be knocking on the door of the top tier of the sport.
A few Other Observations
Since Beijing, Roger Federer is 16-1 winning the U.S. Open and Basel. He seems to have returned to a more normal set of results on court. Still, Andy Murray is my early favorite for the 2009 Australian Open as he has the most momentum of any man on tour.
Paris has any number of interesting stories and matches. Djokovic’s quarter of the draw looks to be quite rough. I do wish Paris and Madrid would do away with the first round byes for seeded players as playing one extra match in October in no way saps an elite player’s Australian Open chances.
I have not written anything for Tennis-X since the U.S. Open concluded in large part because my wife and I are expecting our first child very soon. Rest assured, I will continue to contribute to Tennis-X so long as I pass for being more or less sane and the editors will have me.
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