By Giri Nathan
Was there a more profoundly checked-out player in tennis over the past year than Benoit Paire? Among the ones who actually showed up, week after week, no one has shown more pure dedication to the craft of losing. When the rankings froze last March due to the pandemic, the flighty Frenchman was No. 22 in the world, not far from his career high of No. 18. But when tennis rebooted that August, Benoit did not. The entertainer was at a loss with no one to entertain. From “Cincinnati” 2020 through Wimbledon 2021, he assembled a remarkable 3–23 record. He won just 14 sets in that span. He showed up to and lost first-round in 12 countries (if you’ll permit counting the Monte-Carlo Masters separately from France, which is where the courts technically lie). He retired from four of those 23 losses. Take the usual Benoit Paire tanking and tantrum fare, stir in some pandemic desperation, and the results could only ever be apocalyptic.
In Rome last year: spiked and then whacked a water bottle, served before his opponent was remotely ready, called for the physio because the ump refused to check a ball mark. In Cordoba this year: fought with the ump over a ball mark and then spat on the ball mark, deliberately double-faulted the last points of the match while the ball kid was still gathering his first serve, afterwards posted a screenshot of his career $8.5 million captioned “In the end it’s worth it to suck.” Not long after, in Acapulco, he laid bare the game plan. “Tennis is not my priority at the moment. Getting out of the bubble is the only goal I have at every tournament,” he said. And if there was anything left to say, he said it in Monte Carlo, mourning the empty stands: “I took €12,000 to be in a quiet hotel, then I go home. The Rainier Court, on the shores of the Mediterranean, is normally the most beautiful court in the world, but this year it’s the atmosphere of a cemetery. So the only moment of happiness is when I’m at home, when I don’t put on my mask, that I don’t give a damn about the COVID.”
Meanwhile, the institutional support ran dry. Over the off-season, Paire split with Lacoste, announcing that he hoped to start a clothing line of his very own, with (what else) a cocktail glass as its logo. In April, the French Tennis Federation forbade him from going to the Tokyo Olympics due to his recent antics. Without a clothing sponsor at Roland-Garros, he appeared to be wearing the ball kid’s shirt, available for purchase at the gift shop, with the crocodile logo stripped away—real dark times for one of the sport’s slicker on-court stylists.
But! After getting booed out of his first-round Wimbledon tank job, he stumbled right into that weird little patch of post-grass clay season, and rediscovered how to win—mostly over players outside the top 100, but wins nonetheless. This was progress. Progress has been observed on other fronts, too. Paire, who wrote about the aftershocks of an old heartbreak in Racquet No. 15, was flanked by a companion last week in Toronto as he sat in the stands to support countryman Gael Monfils, who was playing a match manned by a cameraman astute enough to capture said companion smooching Paire’s mouth and possibly also the inside(?) of his nostril on the broadcast.
Can it be a coincidence that Benoit Paire was smooched on the inside of his nostril last week and this week has won three straight three-set matches in Cincinnati? I will leave that question to modern science. This rejuvenated Benoit Paire, a resilient Benoit Paire even, relishing the crowds as he beat world No. 10 Denis Shapovalov in a decider, bears no resemblance to the one spitting saliva on the clay and melancholy in the pressers for a whole year. Another unlikely win over John Isner on Thursday launched Paire into his first Masters quarterfinal since 2013. The bon vivant is back, his mischief now more productively channeled into the drop shots and two-handed smacks of old. Is it any surprise that winning follows happiness for this guy?
Above: Benoit Paire has remembered how to win. (Getty)