Going into 2009, Frenchman Gilles Simon was coming off the best season of his career. In 2008, he’d won three titles, defeating Roger Federer in Toronto and Rafael Nadal in Madrid; a rare feat to accomplish in one year, but even rarer was the fact that both Federer and Nadal were ranked No. 1 at the time Simon defeated them.
These results propelled him into the top 10 for the first time, allowing him to qualify for the season-ending Master’s Cup in Shanghai. There he scored his second win over Federer, en route to the semis, and reached a career-high ranking of No. 6 by January.
At this year’s Australian Open he reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time, only falling to eventual champion Nadal.
Simon has not even been to a final this year, and he’s fallen back to No. 10. He is not a hard player to root for if you’ve watched him play: Not generating a ton of power on his own, he instead plays the classic counterpunching style of using the opponent’s pace against him, finding angles, and making changes in direction/pace to keep the opponent off balance.
His strokes are smooth and movement graceful, and while he is primarily a baseliner he shows good feel at net.
Counterpunching is, however, a strategy resulting in diminishing returns in the modern era of power-baseline tennis. That’s not to say it’s a lost art: Federer and Nadal, plus Novak Djokovic and especially Andy Murray all have the skills of a counterpuncher incorporated into their overall package; Simon does not win free points with his serve the way Federer and Murray do, and his groundstrokes lack the weight of Nadal or Djokovic.
When these players are off their game (as Federer was in Toronto) or not at their physical best (as Nadal was in Madrid and Federer was in Shanghai) a counterpuncher like Simon is just cagey enough to take advantage.
When they’re at their best, as Nadal was in Australia, a Simon-type player has a hard hill to climb. Furthermore, this style of play no longer lends itself to much success in majors.
Let’s look at them:
Yes, this was the site of Simon’s greatest run in a major so far. Long term, though, it doesn’t look promising: The surface speed in Melbourne has long been a slower hard court than at the US Open and is only getting slower.
This lends more time to players with big windups who can hit enormous pace and/or spin, making it increasingly hard for a counterpuncher to hurt them. This is the kind of player Simon ran into in Nadal this year, and that’s why he couldn’t win a set from the man he’d beaten just three months earlier.
Making matters worse, the enervating heat of Melbourne in January deprives players of energy, especially those who have to work harder because they have fewer weapons.
The last great counterpuncher, Lleyton Hewitt, only reached the final in Australia in 2005 after putting on about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason and using his endless tenacity (aided by a vocal home crowd) to fight through two five-setters (and two more in four) along the way.
The still-spindly Simon has not yet shown that kind of strength in body or mind
The slow clay of Paris once rewarded the most patient, consistent, and swiftest of players: just ask Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander. That, however, was in the days of wooden rackets. Now, clay rewards those who can, in a patient and swift manner, knock the crap out of the ball consistently. Counterpunchers can certainly play good matches there, but cannot sustain it for seven rounds.
Hewitt twice reached the Paris quarters in 2001 and 2004; on both occasions he has exerted so much energy in getting there that he was promptly flattened by very good clay courters. The first time David Nalbandian punched his way to the RG semis in 2004, he was crushed by Gaston Gaudio. He again got there in 2006, splitting sets with Federer before withdrawing injured and never reaching a major semi again.
Simon’s own record on clay is a mixed bag: Three of his five career titles are on the dirt, but before this year he had only won one match in four RG appearances. This year he won two before he was bounced in straights by Victor Hanescu.
Long term, the RG is probably like Australia, only worse for this native son.
The lawns of Britain are a question mark for counterpunchers. Those comfortable moving on the grass, like Borg and Hewitt, can win the title through the strength of their passing shots. Those uncomfortable, like Michael Chang, are lucky to win matches.
With Simon it’s evident that he has some comfort on the lawns: He reached the second round in 2007 and has gone one round better in each subsequent year. Still, it was rather disappointing (and surprising) to see him fall meekly to Juan Carlos Ferrero in the round of 16 this time.
At least if trends continue he’ll be a quarter-finalist next year.
This is now the major whose surface plays fastest, and therefore ought to suit Simon’s game best. For that reason, it’s perplexing that Simon has not been past the third round yet. In 2008 he lost in five to Juan Martin del Potro (which looks an awful lot better in hindsight), but this year he again succumbed to Ferrero, this time withdrawing with an injured knee down two sets to one.
The biggest problem for Simon (and a few others) is the event’s positioning eight months into the season: injuries aren’t uncommon, especially for the leanest of players.
If he’s going to contend for a major, this is his best bet, but it will take careful management of his physique.
For Simon there is good news coming with the indoor season ahead. Fall indoor carpet once benefited the hard-serving players like Michael Stich and Richard Krajicek who had no shortage of power and, to be blunt, hadn’t exactly overexerted themselves in the majors during the year.
In the modern game, it may well be the surface of choice for guys who feed off the pace of others (see Nalbandian in 2007 and Nikolay Davydenko in 2006).
As for other events, but this year may have reinforced unpleasant truths: Simon is not Grand Slam-winning material, and with his game it’s hard to sustain success. He is 24, and probably doesn’t have time to add more power to his game.
His best chances are probably to focus on the events that come in late-June and thereafter (putting in some hours in the weight room wouldn’t hurt).