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Currently simmering at a plebeian #42, Gilles Simon seeks to rebound in 2011 from an injury-plagued season and reassert his status as a threat to the ATP elite. In response to a request from one of our readers, we discuss the Frenchman’s principal achievements thus far, trace the symptoms of his recent struggles, and outline several reasons to watch his deceptively understated game.

While Simon first signaled his rise with a victory over reigning Australian Open champion Djokovic at the 2008 Marseille tournament, his crucial breakthrough emerged with his implausible upset of Federer at the Rogers Cup that summer. Despite the immense disappointment of losing the immortal Wimbledon final that year, the world #1 began that match in scintillating style and almost effortlessly romped through the first four games. The first set grew more competitive towards its close, yet this development initially seemed more the product of Federer’s boredom than Simon’s brilliance. Surely anticipating that a routine straight-sets win awaited, the Swiss suddenly found himself in a gritty baseline battle as the Frenchman launched penetrating groundstrokes from both wings throughout the second set. His relentless pressure eventually exacted a toll upon even this legendary opponent, who suffered a lapse in the twelfth game that Simon swiftly exploited with opportunistic backhands. Now awakened to the peril confronting him, Federer predictably soared into an early lead in the final set, much as he had in the opener. But Simon stubbornly refused to bow to the world #1’s apparent supremacy, extinguishing his chance to collect a (probably terminal) insurance break during a multiple-deuce game on his own serve. Shaken by his challenger’s tenacity, Federer won only one more game afterwards, surrendering his serve at love to culminate an encounter that left most fans speechless as they exited the stadium. On that humid evening in Toronto, Simon demonstrated not only his ball-striking fitness and groundstroke consistency but, more importantly, his bulletproof self-belief against the aristocracy of the ATP. To his credit, he did not rest content with this headline-seizing result, charging within a few points of the final at this significant Masters 1000 event, where he would have faced Nadal.

Denied the opportunity to dethrone both of the top two at the Rogers Cup, Simon collided with new world #1 Nadal at his home Masters tournament in Madrid. Once again, Gilles did not declare his ability to challenge the overwhelming favorite early in the match, dropping a rather routine first set. Just as he did against Federer, though, the Frenchman elevated his intensity midway through the second set and caught his opponent off guard by combining tireless counterpunching with crackling, staccato jolts from an enhanced forehand. When this semifinal edged deep into its fourth hour and ultimately a third-set tiebreak, one expected Nadal’s superior experience in such situations to overcome his bold but relatively untested adversary. After 203 minutes of ruthlessly grinding tennis, however, Simon captured a fourteen-point tiebreak to reach his first Masters 1000 final. Predictably weary at that stage, he nonetheless dragged a scowling Murray into a second-set tiebreak before conceding the battlefield. His appetite for competition not sated by this week, the indefatigable Frenchman slipped into the year-end championships; there, he nearly outlasted defending champion Djokovic in a three-set semifinal, the sort of steely struggle of wills that had come to define his most memorable matches. In the round-robin stage, Simon rallied from a one-set deficit against Federer for the second time in 2008. Asked to describe the encore of what he had called an “accident” in Toronto, the charmingly unassuming Gilles said “a second accident.”

Although 2009 began brightly for Simon, his season soon spiraled into disappointment and stagnation. Reaching his first Slam quarterfinal in Melbourne, he engaged in a spirited battle against eventual champion Nadal that offered the audience far more entertainment than a standard straight-setter. A similarly gallant loss awaited in a Dubai semifinal against Djokovic, which uncannily mirrored their tightly contested meeting at the year-end championships. But then two critical losses in Davis Cup seemed to deflate Simon, who failed to repeat his comfortable victory over Stepanek at the year-end championships. After losing the weekend’s decisive rubber to the fading Czech veteran, the Frenchman also sagged twice against the similarly decaying Ferrero, unlikely to have overcome him when at his 2008 best. When we sat behind Simon at the Rogers Cup this time, we observed how swiftly his once-positive body language decayed into negativity during a tepid straight-sets loss to Tsonga. Curtailing his 2009 campaign, a knee injury incurred at the Paris Indoors hampered him significantly during the first half of 2010. Gilles appeared to have reached his nadir, however, when he won just seven games in three sets against Murray at Wimbledon.

After that defeat, he gradually rekindled his confidence with a victory over Roddick and a five-set comeback against the dangerous Kohlschreiber at the US Open. Celebrating the birth of his first child soon afterwards, Simon won his first tournament as a father in Metz and then recorded characteristically hard-fought three-set victories over Nalbandian and Davydenko during the indoor hard courts where the Argentine and the Russian generally excel. Surely invigorated by these positive omens, the Frenchman should approach 2011 with renewed vigor. A steady grinder rather than a gaudy shot-maker, he relies upon a consistency that only will improve with a fuller schedule of events, now that his injury lies behind him. Thus, Simon must strike a careful balance between playing too much (risking further injury) or playing too little (not often enough to find a rhythm). As suggested above, moreover, the Frenchman often has proved a slow starter in matches and has needed to rally from one-set deficits more frequently than one might wish; greater efficiency, especially in early rounds, would improve his longevity while leaving him with deeper reserves of energy for crucial matches later in draws.

Probably more compelling in person than on television, Simon displays several admirable traits that reward a trip to an outer court if one has the opportunity to watch him. At the core of his arsenal lies a brisk two-handed backhand, struck with precise timing and excellent disguise that often allows him to catch his opponents flat-footed. Although Simon’s forehand remains less technically reliable, he has shown a similar talent for redirecting the ball on that wing, changing direction after a lengthy cross-court rally with a flat, stinging drive down the line. The Frenchman derives his ball-redirecting skills largely from carefully honed footwork that rarely leaves him out of position. Aiding him in that regard, his compact physique has undermined the evolution of his serve into a reliable weapon, but Gilles has devoted substantial effort to bolstering this relative weakness. Often as valuable as raw physical talent, a conscientious work ethic has enabled Simon to maximize his potential and surpass contemporaries with superior innate athleticism. Even when his game dips below its best, moreover, his trademark tenacity and courage still surface. Late in an underwhelming 2009 campaign, Simon injured his knee during an opening-round clash with Ljubicic at the Paris Indoors. Rather than retiring or limping to a justifiable defeat, he struggled against his seemingly inevitable fate and conquered it in a third-set tiebreak. If Simon does return to the ranks of the ATP elite, that uncommon resilience will supply the foundation for his resurgence.

As the World Tour Finals recedes into the London fog, Simon and his compatriots travel to Belgrade, where Novak Djokovic and 28,000 equally inhospitable hosts await them. We return shortly to preview the first Davis Cup final in Serbian history.

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