Marin Cilic had been in top form this week at the Tata Maharashtra Open. Seeded No 1, he had lost only one service game in his opening two rounds, barely breaking a sweat in the two hours and 20 minutes that he had spent on court en route the semi-finals.
So, at 5-0 on his semi-final opponent Gilles Simon’s serve, when Cilic brought up two set points, you had every reason to believe that another thumping was on the cards. However, Simon would prove everyone wrong.
Simon saved both the set points to finally get on board, egged the crowd on with his hands in the air and celebrated with a massive fist pump. Cilic went on to serve out the first set in the very next game, but something seemed to have clicked for Simon.
The 33-year-old Frenchman pulled off a remarkable comeback in the next two sets to book a spot in his first final since September 2015. Simon eventually won 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 in an hour and 53 minutes and extended his winning record against Cilic to 6-1.
Simon started the comeback by breaking Cilic’s serve right at the start of the second set. The quality of his play improved with every game — with a combination of deeper returns, crafty slices and stunning passing shots on the run — Simon swung the momentum to his side.
Simon, who was once ranked as high as No 6 in the world, consistently put pressure on Cilic’s backhand, which is arguably the weakest shot in the Croat’s armour. Simon drew his opponent into long rallies and patiently wore Cilic down. The unforced errors kept piling up from a frustrated Cilic’s racquet and his first serve percentage also dropped.
By the third set, Simon was playing with a lot of confidence and was firmly in the driver’s seat. He pulled off one of the most ridiculous points of the match when he broke Cilic for a second time in the decider — Simon ran from one end of the court to another, leapt up in the air and hooked a cross-court forehand pass that whizzed past Cilic at the net for a winner.
Simon, who knocked out defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, completed his second top-20 scalp of the week when Cilic hit a tame return error on the second match point.
“I wasn’t serving as good from the beginning of the second set, didn’t put too many first serves in. He started to put more balls in and I lost a bit of rhythm on my shots in the rallies,” Cilic said after the loss. Despite the defeat, he said that he was overall satisfied with how he played this week and felt ready to play at a high level at the Australian Open.
Anderson survives tough test
In the second semi-final, second seed Kevin Anderson scraped past fourth-seeded Frenchman Benoit Paire 6-7(8), 7-6(2), 6-1 in two hours and 22 minutes.
Anderson hasn’t had an easy win in his first three rounds and it was only in the second set tie-break that he began to pull away from Paire. It’s his serve that’s got him out of trouble in every match and the 6’8-tall South African ended the semi-final with 26 aces.
In the opening two sets, Paire’s unpredictable style of play and his excellent hands at the net had Anderson second-guessing on every other point. The two exchanged breaks at the start of the first set but were unable to make any further in-roads on return. In the tie-break, five unforced errors from Anderson sealed his fate.
Despite getting burnt quite often at the net, Anderson chose to stick to his gameplan of coming forward at every opportunity. His persistence finally paid off in the second set tie-break as he raced to a 6-2 lead and a Paire double fault on set point helped Anderson level the match.
The US Open runner-up raised his game in the decider and continued to serve at a very high level. He lost only two points on his first serve in the third set and needed just 27 minutes to clinch the win and set up a final against Simon.
Later in the press conference, Anderson said he always felt like he had the upper hand in the match. “I had a break in the first set and then 0-40. It got a bit tight in the tie-break. He played a few great points. By the second set, especially in the tie-break, I was a bit more free, and controlled points better. I could implement my game much better in the second half of the match, and that was the biggest difference,” the World No 14 told reporters after the match.
In the last match of the day at the Maharashtra Open, Simon returned to court for doubles along with partner Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The French duo were up against home favourites Divij Sharan and Yuki Bhambri, who had ousted the top-seeded doubles team of Robert Lindstedt and Franko Skugor.
Herbert, who is a two-time doubles Grand Slam champion, emerged as the standout player on the court in the semi-final clash.
Herbert’s superior serve and instinctive skills at the net always kept the French team ahead. Sharan was broken in his very first game after two double faults and a gorgeous top-spin lob from Herbert. Even though the Indians got the break back five games later, they capitulated while serving at 4-5.
The second set was a much closer affair. Bhambri and Sharan chose to target the Simon serve and the constant pressure yielded three break point opportunities at 5-5. However, there poor returns allowed Simon to escape.
In the tie-break, Herbert’s doubles experience came to the forefront as he stepped up to dominate points. He covered the court really well and struck a beautiful half-volley right down the middle of the court, splitting Sharan and Bhambri for a 4-2 advantage. Two points later, he sealed a 6-5, 7-6(2) victory with an ace.
Simon and Herbert will on Saturday face the second-seeded Dutchmen Robin Haase and Matwe Middelkoop, who progressed into the doubles final after they defeated Roman Jebavy and Jiri Vesely 6-2, 6-4 in one hour.
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Updated Date: Jan 06, 2018 11:57 AM