Pune: After a miserable 2017 season where he dropped to 89 in the world rankings, France’s Gilles Simon signaled he is back in form in 2018 by lifting a trophy in the very first week. At the inaugural edition of the Tata Open Maharashtra, Simon emerged as the champion with an emphatic 7-6(4), 6-2 win over World No 14 Kevin Anderson.
The ATP 250 title in Pune is Simon’s first in almost three years — he last won at Marseille in February 2015 — and he took out three top-20 players en route the title. Simon beat defending champion and third seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, top seed and World No 6 Marin Cilic in the semi-finals and finally Anderson in the final.
Going into the match, the 6’8” Anderson had won all three of his matches against Simon. The Frenchman had said before the title decider that he was never comfortable playing Anderson on court because of his booming serves.
On Saturday at the Balewadi Stadium, it was Simon who was immediately under pressure at the start of the final. Serving at 1-2, he went down 0-40 as Anderson attacked with his forehand to make Simon sprint from side to side till he got an opportunity to finish off with a winner.
However, Simon was up to the task and started taking pace off his groundstrokes to counter Anderson’s power. He changed direction on the ball and sliced returns, and after eight long minutes into the game, he was rewarded with a hold.
The unseeded Simon was the first to break as he edged ahead to a 4-3 lead. But three games later, while serving for the opener, Anderson pegged him back and then took the set to a tie-break.
It was in the tie-break that Simon truly stamped his authority and the set point which helped him clinch it was a perfect example of his counter-punching style of play. At 6-4, over a point that lasted 39 shots, Simon was like a wall — retrieving and returning everything that Anderson sent his way.
The 33-year-old isn’t the most athletic player on tour and has a wiry frame, but he is incredible on his feet and runs every ball down. His strategy of patiently grinding his way through rallies and making Anderson play an extra shot paid off as he ended the long set point with a forehand winner down the line.
Backed by a packed crowd in Pune, who chanted “Simon, Simon, Simon” over the changeovers, the Frenchman carried his momentum into the second set. Anderson had only been broken twice in the tournament before the final, and had 60 aces to his name. However, Simon neutralised his serve with chipped returns, and as the match wore on, Anderson’s confidence waned and the errors rose.
While Anderson hit 29 winners (including 15 aces) in the match, Simon forced the big-server into 40 unforced errors. And it was Simon who ended the match with more non-service winners — hitting 34 of those to Anderson’s 14.
Simon broke his South African opponent’s serve in the sixth game of the second set for a 4-2 lead. Playing some of his best tennis, he consolidated the service break with a love-hold. Gone were the doubts and demons of 2017, gone was his record of losing in the first round 14 times; Simon clinched victory by breaking Anderson for a third time in the match and he raised his arms in celebration as a final backhand from Anderson sailed wide.
"It's the first time I managed to beat him," an elated Simon said after his win. "I still don't know how I did it. I'm really, really happy I was able to make it. I am happy about the level I played and how consistently I put pressure on his serve. I could put a lot of returns in, and play a lot of long rallies.”
When asked what he did differently this time to get his first win over Anderson, Simon replied: “I changed a few things, made small adjustments. It’s not like you can find a magic trick to return his serve every time, so you just try and jump as fast as you can on the ball and I tried to change things on my serve as well.”
Simon, who let go off his entire coaching staff towards the end of the 2017 season, said he was content being on the road alone, and preferred strategising and preparing for matches by himself. With his 13th ATP title, Simon will rise to 57 in the rankings on Monday. "I didn’t have a good season last year. I will try to do better in 2018. I will try to work on it to go back to where I was before,” the animated Frenchman said with a laugh.
After his singles win, Simon returned within an hour to centre court with doubles partner Pierre-Hugues Herbert for a shot at winning a second title on the day. Herbert, who is a seasoned doubles specialist with two Grand Slams, was pairing up with Simon for the first time.
The Frenchmen were up against second seeds Robin Haase and Matwe Middelkoop, who were playing their second tournament together after the US Open in 2017.
The Dutchmen’s experience and better chemistry proved to be the difference in the final as they clinched the title after a closely-fought match — 7-6(5), 7-6(5) in an hour and 40 minutes.
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Updated Date: Jan 07, 2018 15:37:48 IST