Commentary

Grueling display paying dividends for Simon

The stealth Gilles Simon wasn't even a forethought in his home country, never mind a contender for the Masters Cup in Shanghai. But after a dogged display in Madrid, Simon is making his move.

Originally Published: October 22, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

The personable Gilles Simon continued his impressive post-Wimbledon form and is overshadowing his more hyped countrymen. A spot at the Masters Cup is drawing ever closer.

Off the court, bigwigs at the ATP are busy, hoping to land a chief partner before the season ends. Given the current economic climate, it hasn't been easy.

Sizzling Simon
Considering that Gilles Simon tumbled to 36th in the rankings in May and is surrounded by countrymen like Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, former junior champion Gael Monfils and the gifted Richard Gasquet, who'd have thought Simon would ever be the French No. 1?

[+] EnlargeGilles Simon
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/Getty ImagesGilles Simon played four decisive third-set tiebreakers en route to the Madrid Masters final.
"Mentally the guy is very strong," Patrice Dominguez, technical director of the French Tennis Federation, said in a phone interview. "He's always had good self-confidence and that's what we noticed when he was 15, 16, 17. Even if he was behind Gasquet, Tsonga or Monfils, the guy believed in himself."

Simon certainly earned his ranking of 10th after a grueling display at last week's Madrid Masters. He saved match points in two encounters, rallied from a set down in four of his first five matches and fought back from break disadvantages in the first and third sets against monster-serving Ivo Karlovic in the quarters.

Simon proceeded to wear down Nadal in a 3½-hour semifinal classic. The final set's second game, in which Simon saved six break points, took 16 minutes. Frequently smiling, Simon didn't allow the crowd a chance to pounce on him.

"He beat Rafa at his own game, and that's very encouraging," Dominguez said.

Simon, who somewhat predictably lost to a fresher Andy Murray in the finale, has toppled Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in 2008. In his career, Simon has made finals on hard courts -- indoor and out -- and clay.

Dominguez acknowledged the 23-year-old lacks a major weapon, yet he sees room for improvement: Simon can add bite to his serve and get bulkier in his shoulders and back.

"He has a complete, full game with a good sense of tactics," Dominguez said. "He can adapt himself to the conditions -- which is very good in tennis."

No discussion of French tennis would be complete without a word on the meandering Gasquet, who has been unable to build on a successful 2007, when he qualified for the Masters Cup and climbed to seventh.

The 22-year-old lost his lone final this year and didn't advance beyond the fourth round in the three majors he entered. His ranking is down to 15th, the lowest since April 2007.

Having an abundance of talent can make things "complicated" for a player, so Dominguez maintains Gasquet will be at his best in a year or two.

"But he has to be a little bit more ambitious and mature," Dominguez said. "Today he's not as good as the others because he's still a child on certain points. He hasn't shown much up to now, but the fact we have other players in France doing well and exploiting their talents much more than he has done himself I think will help him. Maybe it will help him to grow a little bit quicker."

The search continues
With the economy in a hefty slump, trying to find sponsors isn't easy.

The ATP can vouch for that.

The men's governing body is still seeking to fill the impending void of chief partner Mercedes-Benz when the luxury car manufacturer ends its 12-year association at season's end. Mercedes, its logo a fixture on nets, has contributed an average of about $15 million since 1996.

"We hope to get something done by the end of this year," Richard Davies, CEO of ATP Properties, said in a phone interview. "We're working hard, but at the same time, because of the current environment, we won't sell the sport short just to get a deal done. I think the current board feels we should hold out and find the right sponsor at the right price."

Two deals recently collapsed, Davies said. One featured a carmaker, and the other involved a financial services firm. The ATP is in talks with "two or three" other companies, he added. Having a major backer is of little worry to the women's tour, as title sponsor Sony Ericsson is midway through a landmark six-year pact worth $88 million.

The biggest financial coup for the ATP this year was landing Barclays Bank as a title sponsor for next year's season-ending championships in London. The contract, announced in June, is worth $40 million over five years.

Indeed the spring and early summer were productive: South African Airways signed a 3½-year extension worth $20 million; Enel, an Italian-based energy provider, joined for three years; and Ricoh, which produces office equipment, prolonged its agreement by three years.

"Obviously, bringing the World Tour Final to London was a big move for us," Davies said. "We're in pretty good shape financially, but we have no control over financial markets, sadly."

The economy aside, two other factors haven't helped, Davies said. The tour was embroiled in a bitter public dispute with organizers of the Hamburg Masters, who sued the ATP over plans to downgrade its tournament starting in 2009. In August, a federal court in Delaware sided with the ATP, though not before a reported $7 million in legal fees were accumulated. Insurance covered a portion of the amount and rules allow the ATP to recoup the rest.

Then executive chairman Etienne de Villiers, a former senior executive at Walt Disney, decided to step down when his three-year contract expires at the end of the campaign. Portrayed as the bad guy by Hamburg officials, De Villiers was also targeted by the game's stars, including Rafael Nadal, for heavily tinkering with the schedule.

Davies called De Villiers' three years in charge "great."

"Players had a 35 percent increase in prize money, and Etienne has increased investment in the sport," Davies said. "Those are two salient facts. Everyone I've spoken to at senior level liked the changes, liked that we were doing something different in tennis, liked the fact they can guarantee the top players at top events. I think the great shame is that the current climate has affected our ability to find a replacement for Mercedes, which would be a validation of Etienne's plans."

I'm injured, I think
What's up with Simone Bolelli? Punished by Italy's tennis federation for skipping a Davis Cup series against Latvia last month, Bolelli made the wrong type of news again in Madrid. In the midst of being pummeled 6-0, 2-1, by Murray in the second round, Bolelli called it quits, citing a shoulder injury. Bizarrely, he was fine enough to compete in doubles later that day, pairing with countryman Andreas Seppi and contesting three sets against Brazilian duo Marcelo Melo and Andre Sa.

"I think it was a shoulder problem he stopped for," Murray correctly pointed out postmatch, "but he was hitting serves over 200 kilometers [per hour, or 124 mph] all the time."

A lucky loser, Bolelli perhaps thought that upsetting the frustrating Nicolas Almagro in the first round was mission accomplished.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.