PARIS – There is no group of players better at breaking down the game than the French, in their own language, of course. Even in English, they're up there.
We suspect it’s just part of their tennis culture, that the coaching philosophy – whether intentionally or just consequently – contains a component that teaches the players to analyze what’s happening on the court, on both sides, to better help with that immediate problem solving.
Among them, one of the finest analysts is Gilles Simon. As Milos Raonic prepares to face Spanish marathon man Marcel Granollers in Sunday's fourth-round match at the French Open, here’s how the 29-year-old veteran broke down Raonic’s game after the tough five-set loss to him Friday night in the third round. (Translated from French).
Asked about how well he handled Raonic’s serve (the Canadian’s ace total was WAY down from his first two matches) by standing pretty far back in the court, he said this:
“There are always two options. The first is not to return many, but to return harder, try to string three together and break – that’s his tactic. Or you try to return as many as you can, make him play all the time.
"But when you start the point, you’re always way back in the court and you have to come back into the court each time. I found a good compromise at a certain point, because you can’t do the same thing all the time against a player like that. You have to give him different things to think about on serve, vary it.
"And that was the problem. I had that option to start way back, but he started to play better and he started too many of the rallies really being inside the court and able to finish. It became difficult to move him around."
On the general experience of facing Raonic:
"When you play these players, it’s always winnable, but it’s also always tough. Often what happens is you don’t play for a half hour. Suddenly, he’s pushing you into the corner and daring you to make a winner. It’s not easy. I don’t know how many points he won, but three-quarters of them were with a serve and a big forehand.
"You tell yourself, 'Sometimes, he makes mistakes, they’re out by eight metres'. You tell yourself, 'I’m going to lose against him.' It’s awful. That’s his strength; he keeps going for it and all of a sudden he makes three of them and it’s often on a big point.
He manages to create this type of underlying pressure. You feel it, and it means you yourself can’t go for it. At a certain point, you want to try something. You make mistakes and you tell yourself if I get broken again, it’s over.
"It plays out on two or three shots; he goes for it right away and either puts it on the corner or he puts it out. There isn’t a lot of rhythm. It’s a different intensity and atmosphere.”
Asked about whether he and the other players felt that Raonic had improved from the baseline, Simon said he couldn’t speak for others but he didn’t see it.
“Not really. He has his patterns; he knows what he wants to do. He has a few shots that he hits really well, and his great strength is to bring you into his pattern and not the other way around. When he tries some shots, some of them are pretty bizarre. There are drop shots that bounce four times before they get to the net. It’s weird but again, you can’t really ask a player like Milos, with his height, etc., to have the touch, the timing of a smaller player. To each his strengths.
“His strength, again, is his serve. It was 15C at the end of the match, and he can serve 220 all the time, for five hours. It’s tireless. He has incredible strength. In the end, with a game that also is unpredictable at times, he has the ability to put the ball where it should be, at the moment he needs to put it there.
"Of all the players we play, some are able to make the forehand winner eight times out of 10 – and inevitably they’ll miss them at the most important moments. With Milos, it’s the opposite. He’s not doing much and, suddenly, at the key moment, he pulls off a passing shot on the dead run. That’s his way and it’s pretty unsettling."
On the fundamental difference between Simon tennis and Raonic tennis:
"I always see a match from an overall perspective. I feel like I have to win more points than my opponent in the long term. Milos is a player in the moment. All of a sudden, there’s a break point, he shifts gears and it goes perfect. After that, he might put 12 out of the court, but he doesn’t care because he has the break. It’s a strength that I’d love to have, but it’s really linked to his style of play that that’s what makes him really dangerous."