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Benoit Paire And The Pursuit Of Sanity

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 - Day Seven

On some cold winter’s day once upon a time, a tennis coach found himself in the bizarre position of attempting to convince his charge to undertake exactly what he had hired a coach for - competing at a tournament. The player in question asserted that he had no intention of traveling to this tournament, but the coach persisted and the pair quietly argued amongst themselves. Eventually growing tired of such unnecessary deliberation, the player walked slowly to his racquet bag, emptied its contents and then calmly began to smash each and every piece of vital equipment to rancid smithereens. Once satisfied with the irreversible damage inflicted upon his racquets, Benoit Paire looked up at his coach, momentarily scanning his horrified expression, before slowly and quietly asking: “Are we still going now?”

Needless to say, they did not go.

Long before his first appearance in the top 500, Benoit Paire had already carved out a reputation for himself in the sizable circles of tennis’ working class. Despite the seeming vital requirement of all tennis players to come innately equipped with a figurative screw loose in order to cope with the demands of travelling around the world, inflicting irreparable damage to their bodies and bank account as they chase measly pots of money and almost non-existent points in the hope of one day breaking that tiny glass ceiling; the Frenchman somehow pushed boundaries of batshit insanity beyond what the human mind could ever envision. That these stories - and there were numerous - were stretched to their very limit and perhaps carried barely an atom of truth to them was quite irrelevant. As the Frenchman rose, his on-court demeanor spoke louder than any old fable, and the noise his behaviour emitted was pure garbage.

By October 2009, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) had enough, eventually deciding to kick Paire out of their facilities and withhold his financing. Considering the FFT are well known for affording their top talents more freedom than almost any other major Federation, offering their players the opportunity to grow at their own pace and in their own time, this decision conveys just how staggeringly poor Paire’s attitude was. It came as no suprise that Paire’s reaction to this news was akin to a baby tossing toys out of the pram, but the lesson was learnt and his rise up the ranks slowly resumed:

“I got fired in October by the French Tennis Federation. For two months I did not really want to play tennis. But frankly since I calmed down. I feel good in my head and everything is better. I want to prove to everyone that I can play tennis and mentally I’m not crazy.”

Three and a half years later, Paire’s career stands in far greater stead. One of the most curious and irony-laced features of his rise is that, despite all his physical and mental ebbs and flows, his ranking has seen such a steady and seamless ascension from derelict obscurity to the privileged top end of the spectrum. Though the disappointing, braindead and cringeworthy losses remain omnipresent, not once has his mental deficiencies threatened to obstruct his immense talent and force him on a backwards rut. In fact, with each season has come a major milestone - after finishing 2009 outside the top 300, he halved his ranking and broke the top 175. A year later he had successively navigated his ranking into double figures. And by the end of 2012, Paire was a certified top 50er.

And now? Now Paire stands at 26th. Just last week he achieved his major breakthrough, dispatching the likes of Juan Monaco, Julien Benneteau, Juan Martin Del Potro and Marcel Granollers in a variety of different tests. First he was forced to fight through gritty early wins, and then before he knew it, he was soaring. A career-best victory over Juan Martin Del Potro was backed up emphatically with a spectacular lights out, all guns blazing 6-1 6-0 demolition of the Granollers in the quarterfinal. Throughout this grand dissection and in his following contest against Federer too, one of Paire’s early comments rang through for varying reasons:

“People must think I’m crazy. My philosophy is that if I have to play a point, try to play a beautiful one, no?”

Not much has changed since he uttered these words, and yet everything has. The entertaining silky tennis was still there, clear as day - the equal-parts bombastic and smooth backhand, the silky dropshots that constantly tread the perilously thin line between genius and unspeakable foolery, the unannounced forays to the net that have the power to thrill and embarrass, and that’s not forgetting the athleticism that makes a mockery of his tall and skinny 6ft5 frame.

Despite all that, as Paire took to court against Federer, there was such a unforeseen simplicity to his play. Rather than over-complicating thins by trying to thread that perfect, beautiful point, the Frenchman simply went for it. He served to the limit of his capabilities, aiming for the corners and firing down warning shots. Off the ground, he launched a single-minded assault on Federer’s favoured forehand. This isn’t exactly an approach that many attempt when facing Federer, but after being sliced apart by the 17 time slam champion in their previous meeting, it an ingenious adjustment. From the very first point he produced an array of dazzling winners off the ground into Federer’s forehand corner. Most came from his brilliant backhand, but his notoriously less reliable forehand kept Federer guessing with a surging display too. With each hold and every winner, the confidence seemed to vibrate through him. Even when lazy footwork proved his undoing and he found himself at Federer’s mercy and down three break points, he calmly served his way through five consecutive points to hold once more.

Suddenly, he broke. He was playing well. He was dominating. He had come to win. It seemed that in his mind, he was going to win. At *4-3 deuce, with all the adrenaline pumping through him, he lost himself - or at least, he lost this new self. Out of nowhere, he attempted a terrible dropshot, which Federer happily brushed aside. Floundering and panicking, he then attempted another. It failed again. In the blink of an eye, the spell was broken. From the privileged position of a break lead, he suddenly found himself chasing again. More chances came and went, but the initiative he had held appeared to have been surrendered for good.

This time however, he didn’t descend to smashing every racquet in his possession with childish frustration. He didn’t stand on the side of the court, hollering at his coach in an unintelligible yell. He didn’t throw his toys out the pram and shamelessly intentionally gift Federer the remainder of the match. Once again, it was this newfound simplicity that impressed as he simply fought until the final ball. Other chances came and went - and the first set should have undoubtedly been his - but he left Rome with his head held high and the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, he really isn’t that crazy anymore.

Serena Williams Changes Her Spots Again

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 - Day Eight

There she stands again; trophy in hand, smile on face and right leg bent just that tiny bit at the knee as she assumes the pose. As always, Serena Williams is accompanied by a taller but less enamored blonde who carries the consolation plate for walking helplessly into yet another defeat by the American. On days she is dispatched with ease, there is usually a smile too. As the loser takes her final bow, Williams invariably busts into a variety of gleeful poses, hamming it up to the delight of the flashing cameras.

The scene has become all too familiar.

The reactions are familiar too. If Spain, the site of Williams’ title-before-last, stood to gain a Euro every time it was suggested that Williams is currently “better/fitter/faster/stronger than ever”, their insolvency woes would have long since become a figment of a past long ago, making way for gleeful affluence.

As it stands, they don’t. Nor does this statement - irrespective however many times blindly repeated - carry any truth whatsoever. Of course it’s not true. Is she great, brilliant, spectacular, and majestic? Oh yes. But the idea that this 31 year-old is somehow greater than a decade younger version who shrugged at one of deepest elite fields in WTA history, tearing it apart as she waltzed to four straight grand slams? Such absurdity is enough make even Yanina Wickmayer chuckle.

The greatest compliment that can be paid to Serena after a renaissance that has seen her at least attempt to fit 12 singles trophies in 13 months into the surely already overstuffed Williams trophy room, is that she has adapted like no other player in the history of tennis. So often it is her power that captures all the attention, but what catapulted her to such unrivaled dominance during her peak and formed the centerpiece of her game was her athleticism. In addition to her technical and mental gifts, Williams brought to tennis such an unheard of physicality to her tennis. On the ball she was impressive enough, but between strokes she demonstrated such a breathtaking level of intensity, speed and intricate footwork.

As the unavoidable nemesis of age grows stronger, it’s only natural that these physical gifts begin to wane. Age has, of course, proved the ultimate rival of many greats before her. But unlike most, Williams’ talent is so great that age has simply forced her to remortgage her game to rely more heavily on different strengths - to change her spots. As she began to navigate her late twenties, a deadly concoction rapidly bubbled under the surface. Though always a great and iconic weapon, slowly but surely Williams’ serve has transformed and improved beyond the realms of human imagination. With her smooth and effortless motion, she has achieved technical perfection, which allows her to create maximum power, deadly placement and unreadable variety with seemingly minimal effort.

The security Williams’ serve offers her cannot be understated. It has opened up a whole realm of new possibilities, allowing her to be more consistently aggressive than ever, ensuring that points are even shorter and offering her the opportunity to consistently take great swipes at both first and second serve returns. Though she remains one of the quickest players on the tour, the result is that this reliance on her athleticism, movement, footwork and intensity has shrunk considerably. It’s a maddening sight for her fans, as she has abjured almost the entire concept of footwork, but the result is that her game less intense, less physical and, therefore, less taxing to her body. In short, over the latter part of her career Williams has completely changed the nucleus of her game yet, despite that, still stands as the undisputed number one.

It was curious then that one set into this tussle with Victoria Azarenka, the world number one had landed a pathetic 45% of her first serves against the best returner in the world and the woman who had defeated her in their previous meeting. Despite that, as she strutted to her chair, only one single game had been offered to the Australian Open champion. For a player so reliant on her serve on the surface that, in theory, requires her to be at her sharpest and most efficient on serve simply to have a chance, how could this be possible?

Judging by Williams’ play throughout the final, the answer is quite simple. She simply tossed aside every pre-conceived notion of her game. In stark contrast to the risk-taking aggressive mentality that she has become so renown for, she appeared transfixed on making as few errors as possible and adhering to the surface’s core rules. She continued to play aggressive tennis, of course, but her aggression was tempered and cushioned with margin and care. Rather than any blistering forehand or nuclear backhand, her biggest asset throughout the match was the manner in which she manipulated the ball into every single angle of the court and picked apart her opponent rather than blasting through her.

The flat-footedness onlookers have become accustomed to was offered a temporary on holiday as Williams focused so diligently on her movement. At times she even happily offered Azarenka the initiative in points because she was so comfortable on the run. Not only did she navigate the court magnificently, the movement that was so uncomfortable on the surface a weak earlier had seen such a dramatic improvement - both from the small balance-ensuring slides when the ball was close by, to the long and effortless sliding at full stretch. So often the Belarusian would attempt to either pin Williams into a corner or force her on the run, but Serena would simply wait patiently until a gap appeared, before ruthlessly uncorking an angle to send her opponent scuttling after it. The match proved a perfect demonstration of just how sizable the distance between good and great is, with Azarenka unable to attempt anything other than her standard, regular brand of tennis against Williams, while Williams chopped and changed certain aspects of her game yet the outcome remained the same.

And so they stood there once again. Of Serena’s eight Tier I, Olympic and Slam titles over the past 13 months, seven times (Azarenka 3, Sharapova 4) this scene has repeated itself. The world number one has now won 82 of her last 86 matches. If this dominance isn’t reason enough for her to pose and milk the cameras for all she’s worth, then not much is.

How Victoria Azarenka Became Great

Tennis Australian Open 2013

It was 2007 when near-mute whispers of the rising new generation fast transformed into ear-splittingly loud warning sirens. First came Agnieszka Radwanska, who immediately found success - and daft comparisons to Martina Hingis - as she broke the elite glass ceiling, scaling her first Grand Sam quarterfinal and securing a myriad of notable scalps. Caroline Wozniacki’s slow but seamless rise up the rankings followed, her consistency complimented with a never-faltering transition from junior to senior success.

Following slowly in the footsteps of both was a Belarusian by the name of Victoria Azarenka. Though Azarenka navigated a junior career as successful as her peers, capturing two Grand Slams and occupying the top ranking, her profile remained far smaller and little was known about this young champion. Still, the buzz surrounding her told of a fiery Belarusian who had recently relocated to Scottsdale, Arisona and struck the ball with an authority that rivalled the likes of Sania Mirza and Mary Pierce, with intensity, mental strength and - of course - noise reminiscent of Maria Sharapova.

As Azarenka slowly rose to prominence during the latter half of that year, if one thing that became clear, it was that she clearly believed that hype. When competing, her sole aim was to attack relentlessly, punishing opponents with brute force and capturing matches with her sheer weaponry. She attempted, like so many before her, to steal the initiative immediately and tackle matches at her own pace.

In short, it was pure delusion.

Here was a player who struggled to breach the 90 miles-per-hour mark on serve and couldn’t tackle a low forehand without comically scooping the ball up. She lacked natural power and many of her losses were a simple case of her being overpowered and hit off the court. Moreover, the grunting and her angry, aggressive attitude were simply a facade for the actual pace of her shots, which would have left the aforementioned Pierce chuckling at such inane comparisons.

Though she unarguably found success, finishing 2007 in the top 30 and then breaking the top 10 within two years of her rise to senior prominence, the early years of Azarenka’s career would see the Belarusian attempting a style of play that was not her own. Consequently, she was often forced to watch on hopelessly as her peers - whether it was Wozniacki whose smooth rise up the rankings continued until, at number one, she met an impenetrable ceiling; or Petra Kvitova who easily caught up with the Belarusian’s headstart before breezing past, rising from relative obscurity to a Grand Slam title within a year – outshined her on the biggest stages.

In 2011, four years after her breakthrough year, everything changed.

Many, including Azarenka herself, credit a change in her attitude for her ultimate breakthrough between 2012 and 2013. After her second Miami triumph in 2011, she spoke about the frustration that built up as the career she envisioned for herself had, at that moment, failed to materialize and left her incoherently discussing quitting the game altogether. A chat with her grandmother changed everything.

“I said I didn’t want to do something that I’m not enjoying. She said: ‘Then don’t do it. You have to be happy’. She was telling me these stories, about how hard she was working. She was actually working in a kindergarten with kids. She’s been doing a lot of work, having two, three jobs at one time. It was like: ‘Well, you just have to shut up and stop complaining because you have a pretty damn good life. Just work out there.

My Mum asked me: ‘What are you going to do?’ I said: ‘I’m going to study.’ She laughed out loud. She knows that I like to study, but I’m not going to be fulfilling that for a long time. I’m just going to get bored, because tennis is what I really love. I just had to take a step back and realise that is true. My mother’s a very wise woman. She said: ‘Just come back home, enjoy some time, and you decide’.”

From then onwards, she seemingly assumed a new identity. Previously, after perilously tight points and frustrating misses, she would systematically implode and/or explode – either mentally collapsing, combusting with pure anger or somehow both simultaneously. Azarenka’s waltz through the Miami draw showcased a new side to her, however, as such tight moments were met with clarity and she thought through frustration rather than allowing it to consume her. Many volatile and mentally weak players have been able to gradually improve with time and effort, but it is almost unprecedented for a player - a top player no less - to make such a career-altering and dramatic improvement seemingly overnight.

In tennis, the mental side is so undeniably important, but the result is that the technical side often goes unnoticed. Equally pivotal to Azarenka’s rise to the top was her enlisting of Sam Sumyk in a quite bizarre coach swap between Azarenka and her sporadic doubles partner, Vera Zvonareva. In addition to the Frenchman aiding in her newfound calmness and crucially transforming her forehand from the previous comical scoop into a formidably solid stroke, he also clearly understood Azarenka’s game and what she needed to change to break the glass ceiling. It was during a press conference at the Istanbul WTA Championships, I in attendance, that Azarenka unintentionally disclosed just how much had transformed in her approach.

VICTORIA AZARENKA: [...] I just really glad I could keep the consistency and put a lot of pressure on Vera so she wouldn’t make so many winners.
I really tried to hang in there, and that was important to be consistent and aggressive, you know, find that balance.


VICTORIA AZARENKA: Just have to be, you know, consistent and aggressive. Tomorrow is gonna be different day. I don’t really want to look back into our last previous matches. I mean, both times she won a tournament she was in her best form.
Now she’s playing good, as well as I am. It’s gonna be really tough battle, for sure. I just have to be consistent and aggressive, the same that she’s gonna try to do.

The quote doesn’t really do justice the manner in which she so pointedly and continually stressed the importance of being consistent and forcing her opponent into mistakes. I was taken aback, and have vividly remembered it ever since. Previously, the aggression had always been of utmost importance to her, to the point where everything else was irrelevant. But that point confirmed that the transformation Azarenka had undertaken was far more than mental. Of course, the evidence on-court was clear for a considerable period before Istanbul, but it was far easier during this adjustment period to assume that she was simply under-powered. However, the revelation that she was aware of exactly how to win matches, now that…that was of crucial importance.

Though many still laughably equate Azarenka’s game purely with power and aggression - most recently her own sponsor Wilson in this embarrassing ad - it is an ignorant and inaccurate portrait of the former number one. Sure, she still attempts to play aggressive tennis, but she also understands that defense is of equal importance. And when she does attack, it has nothing to do with power. She achieves it through brilliantly constructed points rather than trying and failing to hit through opponents. She prods and pokes, pressing the opponent with depth and smart shot placement – sometimes she doggedly refuses to relinquish her grip on her opponent’s weak spot until it breaks down, other times she irreverently changes direction at will and forces the opponent to scatter around the court at full speed. And the second an opportunity - any opportunity - to finish the point presents itself, she is the first to take advantage.

This new approach means that even when her game is suffering, Azarenka still possesses enough to tackle the majority of opponents. When she makes too many errors or her timing is failing, she is quick to rein her game in and rely on her defence. Moreover, the clarity that has graced her game allows her to properly focus on other aspects of her game. For example, she now compliments her stellar footwork with much-improved movement. She has also become impressively capable when on the run, under pressure from her opponent, when the ball is put in difficult positions or all at once. Finally, she now truly understands the importance of keeping her opponent guessing with well-timed drop shots, confident net forays and slick angles.

Quite simply, Victora Azarenka finally found that balance.


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