Gilles Simon ranged to his left and slid into his backhand. He was stretching to retrieve a Novak Djokovic ground stroke from behind the baseline, but it was a shot that the Frenchman had been making all afternoon in Monte Carlo. More than that, Simon had been using that shot to do what Djokovic so often does with his own sliding defensive backhand: Turn the tables and take the offensive in rallies.
For more than two hours, those rallies had been some of the most entertaining we’d seen all season. With their sharp-angled forehands, counter-punching backhands, change-of-pace touch shots and delicately measured lobs, Djokovic and Simon had pulled each other side to side and up and back. And when that wasn’t enough for one point, they’d do it again. More than once, Djokovic took a moment to join in the applause for a piece of Simon brilliance.
Now it was time for Simon to make that brilliance mean something, to convert all of those point-winning shots into a match-winning performance. A few minutes earlier, he had broken Djokovic at 4-4 with a bullet down-the-line forehand. And a few seconds earlier, Simon had watched a routine Djokovic forehand fly over the baseline to make the score 15-15. Clearly, this match was his for the taking.
But Simon couldn’t take it. At 15-15, he ranged to his left and slid into his backhand, but instead of turning the rally in his favor, he pulled up on it and hit it in the net. On the next point, Simon lifted up on his backhand and sent it long. Finally, at 30-40, after a long rally, he missed a third backhand into the net.
You can guess the rest: While the Frenchman served for the match, 10 minutes later it was the Serb who won it, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5.
Simon is now 1-11 against Djokovic, but this was their second straight lengthy battle; their fourth-round match at the Australian Open last year went five sets. Monte Carlo was a much better, and different, affair. In Melbourne, Simon gave Djokovic nothing to work with and maneuvered him into 100 unforced errors. In Monte Carlo, a more creative Simon matched Djokovic shot for shot and get for get.
Why has Simon turned into a tough and tricky opponent for Djokovic? Mainly because he’s a tough and tricky opponent in general. After losing the first set, Simon began his comeback by digging himself out of two 0-40 holes on his serve in the second set. But while he played well from behind, he slipped as soon as he had the lead. After breaking at 2-2 and 4-4 in the third set, Simon immediately gave his serve back. The Frenchman has been ranked as high as No. 6 (in 2009), but he hasn’t had a lot of top-level wins in recent years, and the lack of belief showed in the end.
Djokovic, who flexed his recently injured elbow a couple of times, will be happy to survive. It was his first match on clay in 2017, and the Monte Carlo resident lost his opener on this court last year. His opponents might not get any easier in the next couple of rounds—he plays either Pablo Carreño Busta or Karen Khachanov next—but they probably won’t be much tougher than Simon.
We’ll see if this signals better things for Djokovic. This win wasn’t exactly essential—he lost early in Monte Carlo in 2016 and still won the French Open—but he can’t wait until too close to Paris to get his 2017 season on track.
What this match definitely does signal is that dirtball is officially here again, in all of its elaborate glory. After watching Djokovic and Simon on Tuesday, I’m happy to welcome it back.