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.