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Gilles Simon, "Professor" and French fan favorite, bids adieu to Roland Garros
The 37-year-old, who will call it a career after this year, lost to Marin Cilic in the third round. “He's a guy that keeps coming and coming and coming back,” said the Croat.
Published May 29, 2022
WATCH: When Tsonga and Simon, who each played their final French Opens, met in Marseille
Late on Saturday afternoon, inside Court Philippe-Chatrier, 37-year-old Gilles Simon sat on a bench and took in all that was happening. There was a wave to the fans, accompanied by a long smile. Simon had just finished his final match at Roland Garros, a 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 third-round defeat to 20th-seeded Marin Cilic.
Following such an emotional moment, in the even-handed way that has long marked his manner and playing style, Simon reflected on what had just happened.
“In the end, it's not a big problem,” said Simon. “Of course I would like to—would have been great to play a fantastic match with him, as we played hopefully in the past, to enjoy even more the atmosphere and this last experience. But overall, I just feel really lucky that I had the chance to play three matches here.”
Earlier this year, Simon announced that he hoped to play Roland Garros one last time and end his career in the fall. Currently ranked 158th, Simon had been granted a wild card, a demonstration of loyalty to a native son who’d competed 16 prior times at his homeland Slam. But Simon had lost in the first round here the last two years.
“No, I know there is no expectations on me,” said Simon. “Nobody is waiting for me at Roland Garros or the French Open, nobody this morning woke up and said, ‘Oh, maybe Gilles Simon is going to win Roland Garros this year. Let's go for it.’ No, it's not that type of pressure. It's the pressure I put on myself because I want to play well from the word go.”
This week’s run to the third round personified the career path Simon had laid out for himself as a child: From a position of defense, he’d generated a surprising result. In the first round, on Court Simone-Mathieu, Simon had taken nearly four hours to upset 16th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta, rallying from 2-4 down in the fifth to win four straight games in a match that ended past 1:00 a.m.
“Sometimes you win it and sometimes you lose it,” Simon said afterwards. “I played a lot of match like this, and in the beginning of my career I was winning most of these match, and the last stage of my career I was losing most of these match. I was really unsure I could make it and I'm very happy about this one.”
Thursday, likely with consideration to the possibility of a loss and the need to celebrate his departure appropriately, Simon’s match versus Steve Johnson was played on Chatrier. Here again, Simon defied the odds, winning 7-5, 6-1, 7-6 (6). It was the 500th victory of Simon’s career, one that’s seen him earn 14 singles titles and reach a career high ranking of No. 6. But those accomplishments had been long ago, the most recent championship run in 2018, the single-digit ranking in 2009.
If you didn’t know anything about tennis, you’d wonder how Simon ever won a match. It was easy to grasp the skills of his trio of compatriots—Richard Gasquet’s slick backhand, Gael Monfils’ tremendous movement, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s firepower. Said Simon, “People talked a lot about this, because I'm in a generation of players who had a lot of aura, very charismatic in different styles, and each of us represent and embodies almost a persona or someone from a comic strip. That is Jo, Richard, Gael. In real life they don't exist, and when they are out of this room, you can't even see them.”
Yet when it comes to comic strip heroes, Simon was Clark Kent turned into Superman. Year after year, as he generated one result after another, Simon’s playing style summoned up memories of recreational players, muttering aloud, “How can I lose to that guy?” But if you understood how the game really worked, in Simon you’d recognize a rare form of tennis genius.
We're celebrating the 100th anniversary of the sport's most prestigious battleground by reliving its most memorable matches.
Throughout its entire history, tennis has always been about harnessing aggression, leverage, power—be it commanding groundstrokes, crisp volleys, bullet-like serves. But Simon had taken another route. Simon’s hero was 1989 Roland Garros champion Michael Chang. In the spirit of Chang, Simon fashioned a game built on movement, anticipation, consistency and the ability to constantly field his opponent’s drives and fling them back with depth and accuracy. In a sport where punches continually get bigger in the manner of software updates, Simon was the quintessential counterpuncher—measured, balanced, challenging.
Simon’s intelligence and persistence surfaced once again today versus Cilic. Though he’d beaten Cilic six of the seven times they’d played, their last match had been in 2018, a year Simon would finish ranked No. 30.
Well past those glory days, Simon today seemed unlikely to win right from the start. With Cilic serving at 6-0, 4-1, Simon clawed back, to the point where Cilic served at 5-3, 15-30. Cilic extricated from that spot and went on to close out the match.
“And always with Gilles it's, I have to say, annoying, but exciting and entertaining matches, because he's a guy that keeps coming and coming and coming back,” said Cilic.
Once again, the man nicknamed “The Professor” had posed a question. Though he won’t leave the game for good until autumn, Simon’s spirit of inquiry will soon be missed.