By Benoit Paire
The following manifesto appears in Racquet No. 15—out now—and is the forward to Out! Wild and Nutty Stories: Tennis as You’ve Never Read Before by Quentin Moynet, published in the French in September by Hugo Sport.
Tennis was always a game to me. It just so happened that it became my career. But if I’m playing tennis, it’s first off to have fun on the court, and for the people who come to watch me to enjoy themselves. My game is ideal for this. I get a rush from attempting crazy shots and from seeing the spectators’ reactions. Sure, when you screw up completely, you look like a jerk. But when it works, it’s amazing. When I’m at practice, I try all sorts of shots. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I would be bored during some sessions, but as soon as I managed an improbable trick, then my smile would come back. I sensed that this was a special skill of mine.
My idols as a kid were Marcelo Rios and, especially, Marat Safin. Marat’s personality was right up my alley. I wanted to be like him, to have that swagger on court and to make beautiful shots. I tried to copy his backhand. Actually, I could see myself in him: He was nervous and showed his emotions, like me. And, at the end of the day, the whole world remembers him. That’s not true for everyone who won Grand Slams or has been a world No. 1. Safin left his mark and offered us something different. For example, the Safinettes! His box at the Australian Open had a row of tall, blond women. At the end of each match, he would thank his crew and they would zoom in on his box: nothing but asses. It was hilarious, over-the-top, and awesome.
Since then, I find that tennis has become much blander. With social networks and mikes all over the courts as soon as you say something, it’s repeated and amplified. The ATP is becoming stricter and stricter, jumping straight to fines and suspensions. I’m not a huge fan, even if some limits do need to be set. Sometimes I find that we aren’t being allowed to express ourselves. As for me, I’ve decided to play the transparency card: I show everything I do. When I’m on vacation, why shouldn’t I drink spritzes just like anyone else would? But believe me, I’m not the only player going out. It’s just that some players want to keep up their serious image. And they’re the ones that I run into at parties!
There’s a lot of hypocrisy in this sport. Take post-match interviews. The players hold back and don’t say what they’re thinking. If you thought your opponent was lousy, why not say so? Even if you’re going to get nailed for it… It’s not a lack of respect, it’s an observation on that particular day. It doesn’t mean we think the player is always terrible. Maybe next week the very same player will beat you. In Monte Carlo in 2017, I played against Tommy Haas. He beat me 6–2, 6–3. In the middle of the match I said that he was awful. That spread all over social media. He’s a player that I respected tremendously, that I admired. He was incredibly talented, exceptional. But on that day, he didn’t beat me because he played well; he beat me because I screwed up. If you ask Casper Ruud what he thought of me after beating me 6–1, 6–1 in Madrid in 2019, he’s not going to say that I’m really good! I was a child compared to him. Still, I finished the year 24th, and he was 54th. Sometimes I’d love a bit more honesty.
In my opinion, that’s why guys like Nick Kyrgios and Fabio Fognini are doing a lot of good for tennis. I like their insanity. Kyrgios, when he played Antoine Hoang in the second round of the US Open in 2019, it was on a show court and it was full. We criticize his attitude and say that he insults everyone, he has no drive and that he doesn’t want to play, but at the end of the day everyone will watch him. Folks know that something is going to happen. His matches are always a show. One day, at Wimbledon in 2019, I walked into the locker room. Kyrgios had just lost to Nadal in the second round. He had barely gotten off the court. I saw him order three beers and gulp them down. Then he left for his press conference. No big deal! Nick, he’s a good guy, sincere, doesn’t worry much and makes good money. The Australian media will tear him apart, but he stays the same. He just doesn’t give a damn.
Me, on the other hand, these are things that can affect me. I think the media goes too far sometimes. They write an article just because I broke a racquet or ripped my shirt. Do we even care? Plenty of players act up on the court and nothing gets said about it… This maintains my bad reputation. Plus, my relationship with the French fans has been complicated for a while. I was hated because of my behavior. Everyone was against me. I had a tough time processing this, it made me sad. Bercy in 2013 was particularly tough. I left the court to whistles after losing to Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The same thing happened the year before, against Nishikori. I think that it started to change when I played Davis Cup for the first time against Spain in Lille, in 2018. And the next year I had the best Roland-Garros of my life. I’m honestly scared that I’ll never feel emotions like that again. First, when I beat Pierre-Hugues in five sets in the second round. At match point I felt something so strong. I was someone else, it was mystical. Then, in the Round of 16 against Nishikori, with the crowd going nuts. It was like being at a football game. And a few months later, at Bercy, where it was always so tough for me, I lost to Gael Monfils, but I left to an ovation. The tides had finally turned.
Not everyone will believe it, but I’m much calmer on court than I once was. I screwed up a lot more when I was younger. I was even more of a dick than I am now! My parents sometimes had to drag me off the court in the middle of a match because of my behavior. One time, I broke all my racquets, and it was my opponent who lent me one. I was acting out to the extreme. Uncontrollable meltdowns for no reason. One year, in Grasse, I didn’t want to play in the tournament. My coach at the time, Laurent Raymond, tried to force me to play, so I broke all my racquets to avoid it. Breaking racquets, getting disqualified, insulting everyone…I’ve done some stupid stuff! And I ended up getting kicked out of the National Training Center.
At that time, on top of my behavior I didn’t have particularly good results, but I was well protected by Patrice Dominguez, who was then the national technical director. I can never thank him enough for his help. He believed in me and my potential. He wasn’t turned off by my misbehavior. But he was sacked in 2009, and Patrice Hagelauer, who replaced him, called me into his office and told me: “I don’t know you; I’ve never seen you play, but you are done. Pack your things.” Overnight. I went back home to Avignon. I had no coach, no structure, and no money. This was the only time that I truly cut out tennis for several months. I went back to football. But I missed that yellow ball. I started to work with Lionel Zimbler, and I ranked 18th in the world in 2016.
I was labeled a talented guy, but a jerk. Often people would tell me that I had what it takes to be in the top 10. Except that I’m also missing several things: being serious at practice, preparing physically… These are sacrifices I’m not able to make. Maybe my tennis is at that level, but those in the top 10 also have the necessary physical and mental drive. They have everything and I don’t. Winning a Grand Slam has never been my motivation. I prefer to be top 30 and enjoy life. Playing golf and drinking spritzes when I want to, instead of sacrificing everything to be the world No. 1. Everyone would say that I’d have time to relax after my career, and that I should fully commit to tennis. But all those who are indoctrinated to feel that way never do relax. Most guys stay on the tour. I never see anyone truly let go. Because that’s their life: tennis, tennis, tennis. There’s an emptiness when they stop playing. But on the day that I stop playing tennis, I’ll still have my spritzes, my nights out, and my golf. I have a wonderful life, one many would love to have. I make money, I enjoy myself, I travel, and I’m the happiest guy in the world! I am incredibly lucky. I wouldn’t sacrifice a thing to be the world No. 1. In 2019 I went to Mykonos, to Ibiza; I treated myself and shared the best moments of my life with my friends. And that’s not something I’ll do when I’m 40.
I’m not jealous of Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic. I respect them a lot and I think what they do and how invested they are is amazing. But damn, when I see Rafa win the French and two days later he’s training at Queen’s for the grass-court season… It’s a different world! If I won the French I don’t know if I’d go to Queen’s or even to Wimbledon. Actually, I think I’d end my season there! They are champions. Without them, tennis wouldn’t be where it is today. I admire them enormously, but I will never be like them. That doesn’t stop me from considering myself a champion. I was 18th in the world, I’ve been in the top 100 for 10 years, and I have three ATP titles: That’s a perfectly good career. Besides, my ex would tell me often enough: “You’re a champion. You play in the biggest tournaments in the world, against the best players in the world.”
Except that, paradoxically, at that time tennis wasn’t going well. In fact, it sounds dumb, but I am better when I’m single. In my personal life, I’ve never felt as fulfilled as I did when I was with my ex. But when I love, I give so much that I don’t focus enough on my career. It was simple: As soon as I lost a match, I was on the first flight to see her instead of staying and preparing for the next tournament. I’d already done round trips just to see her for a day. One year I lost in the first round of Sao Paulo. The next day we went to Rio together for four days. I didn’t practice and I was drinking cocktails. And you could tell at the Rio Olympics in 2016. That episode and my being kicked off the French national team wouldn’t have happened if I were single, and I would definitely have had more fun in the village! But at that point in time I didn’t care: I was incredibly happy.
Three years ago I was in a world of hurt. The breakup destroyed me; I was still in love. I missed her a lot. That’s why my best friend Jean-Charles spent 2018 on the tour with me. I couldn’t be alone. I didn’t give my all in some matches because I missed my ex too much; I was thinking of her while playing. My buddy was there to get me back on track. I needed to talk to him, to tell him what was weighing on my heart. Without him, I would have gone home from some tournaments without even competing. I couldn’t be on a tennis court. My mind was elsewhere. I wanted to try again with her, to give it my all, but that wasn’t possible. So I bought a sketchbook. Almost all my tattoos are drawings from that book. I was reading books about what had happened to me. And I was listening to sad music. I had one hell of a playlist! It brought me even further down, but it’s what I like.
To be honest, I still miss her. I had never been in love before. Three years later, I still get emotional when I talk about her. Later, when tennis is going well, when you are with your friends, going out, then you think less about her. Eventually you forget, even if it’s not always that easy. Today I’m doing well, I’m single and that’s good for my tennis. But I still want to build a life with someone and to have a family. Because family is the most important thing for me. In 2019 at Wimbledon, I rented a house where I lived with my parents, my brother, his wife, my nephew, and my coach. It was fantastic. Just think about it: I was playing tennis with my 3-year-old nephew at Wimbledon! That’s something I’m proud of. When I was little, we watched Wimbledon on TV. I had a tape of 1991 at home, and I would watch it every year. We never imagined that one day I’d be playing in that tournament. And even less that I would be playing Andy Murray on Centre Court in the Round of 16! And so, let’s enjoy it to the fullest…
That’s why I would never sacrifice anything to climb higher. This is my life and I want it to stay this way. Full of highs and lows, wins and losses, laughter and tears, tantrums and bursts of joy. These are the emotions you will find page after page in Quentin Moynet’s book. It is a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes, each more unbelievable than the last. You will smile, chuckle, your eyes will bug out, your jaw will drop, and you’ll shed a few tears. If you aren’t already tennis-obsessed, you run the real risk of becoming addicted. And if you think you know everything about the sport, get ready to rediscover it.
Above: Benoit Paire photographed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for Racquet No. 8. Matthew Salacuse