Simon says French 'tennismen' must forget Federer and seek inner truths to win the Slams

·7-min read

A Frenchman’s name hasn't been engraved on a Grand Slam singles trophy since Yannick Noah hoisted the French Open crown in 1983.

Yvon Petra was the last one before him in the summer of 1946 at Wimbledon.

It’s a measly return from a country with one of the wealthiest tennis federations and a constant stream of men among the world’s top players.

Such failure should technically launch a barrage of weapons-grade questions and ultra deep blue-sky thinking about how to produce competitors for the pressurised cauldrons of elite duelling.

But apparently not. In the corridors of power, hope for a change of luck appears to have taken over from dynamic action.

“It’s obvious that it hasn’t been working for the last 40 or 50 years,” said the veteran French player Gilles Simon. “The French system has been successful for having players in the top 100 but not good enough for top titles.”

Book

Simon has won 14 tournaments while gracing the ATP circuit for nearly two decades.

His odyssey’s pearls appear in Ce sport qui rend fou, which was published in the autumn. An apt season: the 36-year-old is pondering the end of his own career.

And when it is over, the former world number six won’t be mentioned among the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But then, no Frenchman of Simon's set will be.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - Australian Open finalist in 2008 - Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet all possessed the shots and skills to win the major crowns but they consistently fell short.

Simon suggests the same system that took all of them up to the top 10 was the same structure that failed to provide them with the tools to construct the machine for the next stratosphere - Grand Slam winner.

Instead, the Swiss, the Spaniard and the Serb have, since Federer’s breakthrough triumph at Wimbledon in 2003, harvested 56 of the subsequent 68 Grand Slam tournaments in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York.

The troika have also collected the lion's share of the second most prestigious titles at the Masters 1000 competitions.

Simon says his book offers up some reflections of what can be done so the next generation of male French players are in a better position to exploit the chances to seize the sport's most glamorous prizes. His is not a chronicle of a dearth foretold.

Talent

The talent and the ambition have been there. But what has been missing, Simon claims, is humility, belief and the guidance for players to trust in their styles.

“We didn’t work on the mental part because we didn’t even accept that we had to work on it,” he recalled of his days in French academies.

“We believe that the mental part is something that is inside you. And since you either were or weren't born with it, it won’t change. But I say no, you can work on it.

“At one point you’re going to be scared. When I was learning tennis and asking what I should do, the answer was: ‘You should not be scared.’

“There was the way of seeing things and that was to have one way of play that was said to be superior to the other one,” he added.

“Change this state of mind and statement and start to believe that you can play any kind of tennis and be successful with it and then I don’t see why we will not win a Grand Slam. We had the players and we have the players.”

'Federer factor'

A certain Mr Federer hasn’t helped French tennis either, says Simon. “Roger fitted the French idea of tennis. But this was around before Roger. It was decided that tennis should be played like this ... Roger came along, played it every day and was winning - being offensive even in the tough moments … going forward … winning the point … being aggressive.”

The style has brought Federer intergalactic adoration; a joint record 20 Grand Slam titles; more than 100 million euros in prize money; lucrative sponsorship deals and an interest in the pundits’ argument about who is the greatest player of all time.

“But we know that Nadal and Djokovic can win,” added Simon. “So if I was coaching a kid that was naturally playing like Novak, do I tell him play like Roger? Or do I tell him to keep playing like Novak and potentially win 17 Slams?”

Nadal joined Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles in October after pulverizing Djokovic in the final to hoist a record-extending 13th French Open crown.

Simon quips in the book that Nadal's early style of standing well back from the baseline to receive serves would have been beaten out of him had he passed through the ideological rigidities of the French system.

With Federer out battling with a wounded knee until at least March, Nadal could overtake the Swiss at the Australian Open in February. The smart money though is on Djokovic drawing closer to his rivals on 18 with a ninth Australian Open crown.

“Federer is taking up a lot of space in France,” Simon lamented. “Don’t get me wrong, he is amazing to watch but I think this is one of our problems.

"It will help if Roger doesn’t have the record for the Grand Slams. It will help the kids. They’ll be able to say: ‘OK Roger is fantastic but I don’t think I’m going to win playing like him. I can win in a different way.”

Style

Simon’s path was as a baseline metronome. Fluid strokes, relentlessly picking away at an opponent's patience or weakness. It brought him titles on clay and hard courts. There were a couple of lost finals on grass too.

And the book recounts tales of slights and stinging rejections along the journey into the top 10 and out again.

But the 192 pages aren't about settling scores or muck-racking. Neither is it a billet-doux to the halcyon days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the circuit.

“I just wanted to say things with my way of thinking that’s why it took me four years to write."

It is also very much a French capsule highlighting a hidebound reluctance to confront the truth of failure and hunt alternatives rather than waiting for luck to kick in.

"I had a lot of good returns from players of my generation who went through the same system and had this disconnection," said Simon. "We had it, it was there before us and there’s no reason why the next generation won’t have it also.

Assistance

“If they read the book and feel the disconnection, then they’ll know they have a little support and they can say: ‘OK, I’m not crazy.”

Such reformist zeal would suggest a drive in the offing to clear the fuddy-duddies from the tennis federation’s corridors of power.

“No, it will never be Gilles Simon, president of the FFT and if I did coach ... it would be for players between 14 and 20.

"During this stage you still have to improve the game - like learning shots and techniques as well as the things you need to know about yourself as a player."

A haul of some 15 million euros from his own travails on the courts should obviate the need to rush out and hustle for a teaching gig.

If and when he does get out to train some aspiring teenage compatriots, it will be to hone eyes for prizes that his own generation seemed structurally fated to never seize.

Ce sport qui rend fou, Reflexions & amour du jeu, Flammarion.