Benoit Paire is a man with a complicated reputation.
He is a tennis player of prodigious natural talent, and an ability to make the game look effortless. The Frenchman’s fluid movement on the court and his smooth double-handed backhand are impressive to behold. Paire is also known for being impulsive and hot-headed. He has a close, special relationship with his family, as he does with his good friend, Stanislas Wawrinka. And he is a worthy member of the serial tennis racquet breakers club, whose illustrious members include the likes of Marat Safin and Mikhail Youzhny. As Paire himself said, “When you want to break a racquet, you’re so upset that your strength increases tenfold and it becomes difficult to stop you”. At first glance, however, he comes across as a calm, collected individual, with none of the obvious flamboyance of a Fognini, or the bristling emotions of an Ivanisevic. Paire is ice-cool outside, but fiery-hot inside.
This was the man playing today at the Aircel Chennai Open in a quarterfinal match against the Spaniard Marcel Granollers. The match took place on an outside court, which was slightly surprising, given that this was an encounter between the fourth and sixth seeds of the tournament. However, the intimate settings of the outside court provided the perfect opportunity to observe the Frenchman and his supposed volatility at close quarters. Today therefore, we would definitely get to understand the complexities of Benoit Paire and his tennis.
The Cool Customer
Paire enters the court in a very relaxed frame of mind. He passes his countryman Edouard Roger-Vasselin, who is on his way out after winning his quarterfinal against Dudi Sela in the previous match on the same court. Paire stops to congratulate him with a big smile, and thumps him on his back. He continues to look loose and relaxed as he hits his warm-up rallies with Granollers.
Paire has not started well in this match. A string of unforced errors flow from his racquet, and he is under early pressure on his serve. He continues to look very composed though, as he leisurely moves between points with his head down and focused on the ground. He hits another easy forehand into the net, and fixes his gaze solidly on a wasp lying on the court a few meters behind the baseline. He holds the pose for at least five seconds, before moving on.
The Angry Young Man
Granollers has broken Paire’s serve, as he had been threatening to do since the beginning of the match, and the latter is now beginning to feel the strain. Paire starts muttering to himself in French after every point. In what feels like his trademark move, he bites and holds his shirt collar between his teeth as he makes his way to the service line for the next serve. The crowd, which is pro-Paire to begin with, sees that their man is having an off-day, and fall solidly in support behind him, trying to cheer him on to play better.
Granollers breaks for the second time, as Paire shanks a forehand way beyond the baseline. The first set is all but gone now. And the moment we had been half-expecting is finally upon us. At the change of ends, Paire proceeds to smash his racquet on the ground at least four times in quick succession, mangling the frame permanently out of shape. The act comes without warning, is executed without a word, and there is no visible change in his demeanor after the incident. A couple of young girls in the audience choosing to walk behind the chair umpire at that moment jump in fright, on hearing the sharp crack of the racquet behind them.
Granollers wins the first set, and begins by serving in the second. Paire has, for the moment, completely lost it. His muttering in French is continuous and at its loudest now. He sneaks a glance at his team, and shrugs his shoulders. They clap back, and urge him on. Things come to a head when an old man in the audience causes a distraction as he struggles to find his seat in the crowd. Paire gestures at him, and complains loud and long to the chair umpire and to the world in general. The poor old man is quickly hustled into the crowd. Muttering and grimacing, Paire is the focal point of attention on court now, Granollers is just a necessary prop for the action.
The Unstoppable Force
Paire is slowly getting his act together over the last couple of games. His forehand starts clicking, and he strings a few points together in succession. He shows a fist-pump for the first time in the match. The crowd sees that their support is having on impact on the Frenchman, and they enthusiastically cheer him on further. Paire hits a difficult overhead smash to break Granoller’s serve for the first time. He bends over and lets out a prolonged yell, concentrating on the ground in front of him. The crowd goes wild.
Paire is attempting to serve out the second set. Granollers saves one set point with a brilliant, athletic rally from the baseline. For the first time, cries of “Come on, Marcel!” emanate from the crowd. On the next set point, Paire essays a stinging drive volley on his favoured backhand side, to tie the match at one set apiece. There is a short, sharp exclamation from him, though with not as much vehemence as the earlier break had elicited. The need for pumping himself up further has now passed.
2-6, 6-3, 5-1
The Frenchman is on a roll in the third set. He breaks Granollers twice to get within a game of winning the match. He is back in a self-controlled cocoon now, with minimal emotions displayed. Everything he tries seems to work. Even the net cord conspires to give him a lucky point at a crucial juncture. Paire immediately apologizes, holds up both his hands in the air, and keeps them there till he gets an acknowledgement from Granollers.
The Enlightened One
2-6, 6-3, 5-5
Serving for the match at 5-1, Paire goes down 0-40 on his serve, due to some inspired play from his opponent, and an unforced error at his end. There are mild signs of agitation again, as he raises his arms to his head and urges himself to focus on the task at hand. It doesn’t help though, as Granollers breaks back, not once but twice, to level the match. There are no histrionics from Paire this time though. He remains calmness personified. The only gesture from him is a slight tapping on the side of his head with his finger, looking down at the ground. This might be the most profound gesture, after all. Beyond this stage, it truly is all in the head.
2-6, 6-3, 6-6
Both players add to the drama by exchanging breaks at this late stage. The spectators continue to solidly cheer for Paire. The Chennai crowd displays its knowledge and love for anything French with cries of “Allez, Benoit!”, “Do it for France!”, and even “Tres bien!” and “Encore!” Granollers hits a passing shot, leaving Paire stranded at the net, to take the match into a deciding tie-breaker. Paire now seems to be playing with a sense of philosophical surrender to the currents of the game. He produces nothing more than a grimace at this stage, even as Granollers lets out an almighty roar for the first time in the match.
2-6, 6-3, 6-7(5)
The tie-breaker is as exciting and fluctuating as the rest of the match. Paire shows us a bit of the entire range of emotions at his disposal. He bites into his shirt collar after an unforced error, he lets out a scream with a fist-pump after a well-played point, he throws his head back in dismay after a double fault, he displays ice-cold reserve as Granollers pummels a couple of shots past him. Paire makes a conscious decision to be more aggressive in the tie-breaker, and in the end, it costs him. He hits the last ball long to lose the tie-breaker 5-7 and the match in three fluctuating sets.
Even as the final shot lands outside the sideline and Granollers begins his victory exultation, Paire is already climbing across the net to his opponent’s side. He meets Granollers halfway in his court, and congratulates him long and sincerely.
Paire is in a rush to leave now, and in a matter of a minute, he is striding out of the court to the cheers of his well established fan club in the crowd. He leaves with a calm, composed demeanor, even if his lips are set grimly.
So, Benoit Paire exits the Chennai Open, but not before giving us a taste of his game and his personality. We saw snatches of the variety and fluidity that always characterizes his game. Unfortunately, we did not see it on a consistent basis today. That in turn, however, did allow us to have a glimpse of the man behind the tennis player, which was memorable. From umpire complaints to icy-cold passiveness to full-blooded racquet smashes, he ran the full gamut of emotions today.
To call Benoit Paire a quick-tempered player would be too simplistic a statement. He is a much more layered person, with a calm outward visage, who can bring his personality onto the court in different ways. These still waters do seem to run deep.