In the head of Benoit Paire

Oct 16, 2015, 12:04:45 PM

In the head of Benoit Paire
Knockout round at the US Open, victory in Bastad, final in Tokyo - Benoit Paire definitively emerged as a refreshing force of world tennis in the second part of the season. All thanks to a recipe made of naps on the court, shattered racquets, a lot of bur

His critics talk about him as a funny and annoying showman, others see a bit of Van Gogh in his perfectionist and destructive rage. But after a flamboyant second part of season - knockout round at the US Open, victory in Bastad, final in Tokyo - Benoit Paire definitively emerged as a refreshing force in world tennis. All thanks to a recipe made of naps on the court, shattered racquets, burgers and drop shots that stop time.

 

"I want to eat my the balls!" At 6-6 in the first set of his third round match at the US Open against Tommy Robredo, Benoit Paire was very visual and audible. And it wasn’t new. As the French is also fascinated by psychology. On May 29th, Paire was facing Tomas Berdych in the third round of the French Open. In the privacy of the court No. 1, at 4-4 in the second set, the French set himself an aesthete’s challenge: to finish each point with a drop shot. Six points and six drop shots later, Paire won the game and rejoiced in front of the enraged fourth player in the world. For his first match in Grand Slam in 2010, the French had even tried 48 drop shots. "I want to be happy on a court, and this is the case if I succeed all the shots that I want, if I make retro, serve-and-volleys... You know, exceptional shots. I try things when I shouldn’t, but we play sport to have fun, right?" he once said to a journalist of Interior Sport. A difficult principle to be applied: 48, it's also his record of broken racquets in a season.

 

Fun and contradictions

 

At 19, in 2009, Paire was expelled from the French National Training Centre for "things that couldn’t be tolerated" and which were "penalizing the whole structure," then justified Patrice Hagelauer, ex official at the French tennis federation. At the time, his good backhand didn’t have a say. "What hurts me the worst is that he fires me while he never saw me play," said Paire at the time. Since he was little, Benoît has always been analysed in a grid made of boxes that mention neither his backhand nor his service. As if the complexity of tennis - this unsustainable internal struggle between a man, the potential of his hand and the ability of his mind to fulfil this potential inside of a cage – wasn’t enough. But if a tennis court is indeed a psychological prison, his coach Lionel Zimbler quickly understood that Paire would never become a model prisoner. From "a project based on the pleasure of playing and discipline", he has thus pushed him to embrace his contradictions rather than to fight them. A player of 6 ft. 4 whose favourite surface remains clay courts. A clay-courts player who loves serve-and-volley with the class of a grass-courts player. A big hitter who prefers his backhand to his forehand. A player who seems to ask himself a billion questions, but who hardly takes half a second to prepare and execute his service.

 

Retro drop shots Marat Safin

 

"He didn't grew up with the idea of becoming a professional, it's his talent that took him far. He's a bit of an alien on the tennis planet," said his friend Camille Maccali in L'Equipe. He might only admit it after his career, like Andre Agassi, but part of Benoit must hate tennis, hate it, or at least hate the talent that pushed him into this exhausting quest for world summits. After all, when he arrived at the ISP Academy in Sophia-Antipolis, Benoît only wanted to be a simple tennis coach. And today, with the high requirements of the tour, "playing for fun" is no longer obvious. As if to flee, Paire loves drop shots because they can shorten the rallies. When he no longer has this option, he chooses to take a nap in the middle of the game, like last week against Marcos Baghdatis. And when the French can no longer flee, he breaks a racquet, failing to break that right hand and its uncontrollable potential. Sometimes, Paire gives the impression of dreaming of a legendary career like Safin's: the one of a man who can go out with his friends, sleep with the prettiest girls and win the tournament anyway. In March 2013, Benoît won the Gosier Tournament (a Challenger) with this style: he enjoyed everything Guadeloupe had to offer with his friends during the day and won his matches in the evening. "It was a perfect week. In the spirit, that's what life is about," he told L'Equipe in 2013. Running laps? "I had to do two in my life" And discipline? "I used to eat at McDonalds five times a week." Even today, his tennis career seems to sometimes pass after the (honourable) challenge of a best burgers world tour. "I shouldn't say it, but I have always succeeded without too much efforts. So, I wonder: why should I make an effort?"

 

Fear of heights and melancholy

 

While he inevitably approaches the top 20, Paire moved away from this figure of Tin Cup or Magico Gonzalez of the racquet. "I have no limits," he even said after his epic in Tokyo. But at home, the urge to flee can quickly be replaced by the fear of heights: being so talented, have endless possibilities in the right hand, it's scary. For you have everything to lose. "Our deepest fear is not to be unfit, our deepest fear is to have an extremely powerful power. It is our own light, not our darkness that frightens us the most," said the character of Timo Cruz, another tortured young athlete in the movie Coach Carter. For Benoit, this fear takes the form of a lack of self-confidence: "I like to be in a sad mode, it makes me think, I create a bubble," he told L'Equipe in 2013 "It helps me be less tense on the court, I put things in perspective: there are worse things in life than a tennis match. But, then, I arrive without rage on the court. There are guys who arrive on the court and know they will win. It never happened to me. And when I win my first point, I'm happy because I know that I'm not going to lose 6-0, 6-0." A need to feel death to feel alive? Against Robredo in New York, the French lost 0-3 in the tiebreak in the first set when he said: "Well, I have no more racquet, my grip is slipping, but I’m okay..." He then won seven straight points and the set. Once the pressure was gone, from the first game of the second set, he put the hand brake, "Well, now I'm done." The fear of too much success.

 

Desire for revenge and freedom

 

When Benoît arrived with his bag full of retro drop shots and posters of Safin, maybe French tennis simply made a bad judgment call. Fortunately, this old wound has become strength. Behind melancholy, Benoît is led by a strong desire for revenge. "Everybody criticized me and said that with my character and my behaviour I'll never make it. I won't forget it," he told Inside Sport. At the US Open as in Bastad and Tokyo, Benoît played with the flame of one who depends on nothing more than his talent. In his head, Paire never depends on his opponent, as he knows that he can beat anyone. Paire doesn't depend on public opinion either. Finally, Paire doesn't feel accountable to any national pressure. Hence his freedom to play that "crazy tennis burning with enthusiasm which doesn't exist" according to his coach. Because he has always been abandoned by everyone at one time or another, the French became an unattached player. Just like his daring drop shots.

 

By Markus Kaufmann