Rolex Paris Masters – Gilles Simon and the misunderstanding of his potential: “He had everything to become world No. 1”

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and his unstable backhand. Gaël Monfils and his tendency to play too far from his line. Richard Gasquet and his lack of ego. We have heard a lot of observations of all kinds explaining why the generation, brilliant and finishing, which has had the good times of French tennis over the past fifteen years had never managed to win this damn Grand Slam title. With an irrevocable sentence, obscuring perhaps a little quickly and unfairly what she accomplished great: she could have done better.

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And Gilles Simon then? He never really entered into this debate. Think about it: winning 14 titles, beating the entire Big Four, reaching 6th place in the world, playing the Masters (2008), reaching two Masters 1000 finals (Madrid 2008, Shanghai 2014) as well as two quarter-finals in Grand Slam (Australian Open 2009, Wimbledon 2015), it’s still not bad and even unexpected for a player on whom the microcosm wondered if he would only manage to make a career one day.

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This concept that he has maximized his potential, vsis something that has been said a lot about me but which is completely false, he said to Eurosport at the beginning of the week at the Rolex Paris Masters, before tackling his last tournament there, with the magnificent course that we know. At the same time, people have always seen me as weaker than I was. I was already not the one we imagined even in the 100 best in the world, even less in the 50, 20 or 10. Inevitably, once I went that high when we already had hard to imagine myself three levels below, it is the logical conclusion to say: ‘He, he exploited his thing thoroughly’. It’s just that an image was stuck on me, like on others. Me, I was stuck with the image of the guy who would never be strong.”

“We nicknamed you ‘CNN’, because you never closed it”: “Tsonga and the others greet Simon

Gilles Simon has, it is true, never made a lot of effort to display flashy assets on a field. His first ball was painfully over 190 km / h, he had to hit three backhand slices in his career and often only went up to the net to shake hands with his opponent. We have known better equipped arsenals.

His own strengths were obscure, invisible, based on optimal exploitation of opposing flaws and the geometry of the court, a professorial application of the famous theory of angles dear to Henri Cochet, and also, all the same, a sense of timing not stressed enough. But overall, it wasn’t a show, let alone a circus. It was science. And science, it especially thrills the most “geek” of insiders.

From an early age, Gilles Simon, in addition to having to deal with a very frail physique, had to come to terms with this latent idea that he would have to fight to snatch a small place in the sun. In collective imagery, it has always been the fourth wheel of the “Big French” carriage mentioned above.

During his training, the same: if he followed the entire federal course, it was in extremis, caught up several times by the colback thanks to executives who believed (despite everything) in him and defended him tooth and nail against those, more numerous, who “winked” at his lack of results and this famous potential.

Gilles Simon’s first feats of arms on the pro circuit, in the mid-2000s, were also accompanied by another refrain often whistled about him: he would have the “melon”, the “boulard”, an arrogance exceeding a little too understanding. And it’s true that he displayed a self-confidence that seemed inversely proportional to the means attributed to him.

Basically, the misunderstanding probably started from there: Gilles Simon proclaimed his strengths, tired of being constantly denigrated. At one point, he felt compelled to lower the sound and silence his ambitions, perhaps also so as not to contravene the obligation of humility befitting any French sportsman with his public.

However, when he reached the 6th place in the world in 2009, “in my head, potentially, nothing prevented me from becoming number 1, he confided this week to L’Equipe. It sounds arrogant but my logic is always the same: these guys (the Big 3) are monsters but I beat them. They are stronger but not that far. That’s how I built myself. I say things that make sense to me but not to others. The encounter with the media universe and the expectations of the public was difficult for me. It created a disconnect.”

A Djokovic, a Murray, at the base, have nothing more than him. Except that they, like Nadal and Federer, worked on the mental aspect very early on.

It is the least we can say. Gilles Simon world number 1 in power? We would have found few observers to agree. Except among those who have known him closely. “Of course, Gilles had everything to become world number 1, thus opines the mental trainer Ronan Lafaix, who worked with him in 2017 and 2018. He had the passion, the intellectual qualities and that thirst for progress that the greatest champions have. A Djokovic, a Murray, at the base, have nothing more than him. Except that they, like Nadal and Federer, worked very early on the mental aspect, which allowed them to develop their game. Not Gilles. He was not challenged enough during his training. He then went to find the solutions on his own, but it was a bit late.”

Facing Auger-Aliassime, a combative Simon to the end

Several times, during his last tournament, the player confided that one of the things he was most proud of in his career was to have succeeded in this long inner journey which allowed him little by little to know manage the moments of stress that inevitably emerge at the bottom of a career. Especially from the moment he understood that he should not elude his fears, but already begin by welcoming them and entrusting them, to better assume them and expunge them.

It took me a long time to understand that my problems would not pass by themselves, and miraculously. But when you do it at 26, it’s late…

It is moreover in a logic of transmission that he released in 2020 a book (“tennis, this sport that drives you crazy”) focusing a lot on this theme of the mental approach, according to him erroneous in France. “I think that we lock ourselves up a lot in an approach based on envy, fighting, he said Thursday evening after his defeat against Felix Auger-Aliassime, whom he admires precisely for his ease in expressing his doubts, despite the praise that has rained on him. This is what is a little different with Nadal or Djokovic, who have also had more personal paths. For me, it basically comes down to that. It took me a long time to understand that my problems would not pass by themselves, and miraculously. But when you do it at 26, it’s late…”

“He is younger, more beautiful, stronger, more everything: Simon – Auger-Aliassime, mutual respect

For Ronan Lafaix, Simon should not have come to develop this tactical genius that has made his signature. Because he should have developed his own weapons first. But that he strayed into a policy that was a little too “short-termist”, more concerned with his desire to win immediately than to optimize his potential later. “Gilles, what he wanted was to make matches, all the time. And above all, to win them. He developed a short-term game to win and he did it very well. But that’s where where he should have been encouraged to think more about the future. He lacked ambition on his game and he paid for it afterwards.”

He paid for it when the enormous pressure of the very top level ended up catching up with the simple love of the game, to the point of suffocating it. Simon was then himself overtaken by this “lack of detachment” which will never have let go during the rest of his career, forcing him to often play with the handbrake badly released, even if it means leaving too much rubber in the first laps. Finally, a bit like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet, it was perhaps at the start of his career that he played his matches being the most relaxed. Then, he always ran after this flame of recklessness.

Gilles Simon at the Masters Paris 2022

Credit: Getty Images

According to the former coach of Stéphane Robert and custodian of the “Be PRO” training, this race was lost in advance, because the time lost at the start can no longer be made up, especially in an era dominated by such Formula 1. “To win, Gilles has developed this ability to get into the other person’s head and he forgot himself a bit in that, when he is able to do a lot of things on the field. He has accepted too much to undergo to win. That’s good, but you can’t develop sufficient self-esteem by playing like that. The best ones always impose their game. Gilles, on the other hand, adapted too much to the other and he enjoyed it, because he was winning. Until he was tired of winning in pain.”

In a way, Gilles Simon thus ended up touching the famous limits of his potential. Even if potential, like talent, is far too abstract and unfathomable a notion to precisely define its very essence. There remains one truth that will not be taken away from him: with the cards he had in his hands, Gilles Simon will have given everything on the court, right down to the last point. Optimization or not of a potential, he will have at least tried to extract from it to the last drop. This will not remain the lesser lesson of the professor.

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