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Monday, October 20, 2008
Simon inconspicuously making his move


You won't hear people talking about Gilles Simon in the hushed tones reserved for the Roger Federers and Rafael Nadals of this world, but with the battle for the year-end No. 1 pretty much decided a month ago (although Nadal didn't officially clinch the top spot until this past weekend), the inherent interest of the fall season seemed to be in deep jeopardy.

Then along came Simon, tennis' latest version of The Little Engine That Could, to mount a stirring and smile-inducing run in his hopes of qualifying for the Tennis Masters Cup, the elite year-end tournament featuring the top eight performers of the year. A Federer, Nadal, Hewitt or Roddick might yawn and say, "Been there, done that." But for the players struggling to break out of the journeyman ranks, earning a Shanghai berth is a career highlight.

And Simon, who's just as spent physically and fried mentally as everyone else on the ATP Tour, has been throwing his heart and soul into the effort. The 23-year old native of Nice, France, entered the Madrid Masters last week at No. 12 in the race for Shanghai, with many of the usual suspects -- James Blake, David Nalbandian, Nikolay Davydenko, to name a few -- more or less dawdling or marking time. Not Simon. Instead, he played something like a career tournament, even though he lost to Andy Murray in the final.

It seems like every time you turned around last week, this middleweight (5-foot-11, 143 pounds) with the versatile, appealing game was wiping away match points or enduring life-or-death tiebreakers in order to keep his hopes alive. Four of his six matches in Madrid were decided in third-set tiebreakers, starting with his first-round squeaker over Igor Andreev. When you look at the kind of pressure Simon must be feeling in his drive to qualify for the TMC, that's stepping up, big-time. Winning a third-set 'breaker against Nadal, like Simon did in the semis of Madrid, isn't exactly business as usual for a guy like this, either.

After the loss to Andy, Simon said: "It won't be easy because there are only one or two more tournaments left. I'm not sure if I will play in Lyon [this week.] Right now I just want to rest, I think two days. [But] if there is only one tournament [presumably a reference to the season-ending Paris Masters], you can't make any mistakes, you have to win … you have to defeat a player like Federer or Nadal again, so it won't be easy."

Hmmm, I'd guess that right about now, Simon is on the horn to the promoters in Lyon, promising to play -- after all, he's a drawing card in his native France these days, and under these conditions, he might get a Tuesday or perhaps even a Wednesday start (draw allowing).

And why shouldn't he do that? At a time of year when stars are more inclined to fade than throb with light and heat, Simon is on fire. And it isn't like the guy's come out of nowhere -- he won three events this year and reached the final of his first Masters event at Madrid. Referring to the top-five players, Simon did some shrewd calculations:

"I have the ability to beat them on one day. It's not like it's 100 percent certain they will win. Even if its 70/30, there's still a 30 percent chance that I can win so I try to play in that way."

That's not a bad way to go, and I'd say that Simon's odds on breaking through to Shanghai are easily that good. But I do think he'd do himself a favor if he found the energy and drive to play this week, to keep the pressure off as he heads to Paris.