Benoit Paire: the French hurricane

Regular watchers of the sport we love are well aware of the concept that as an individual sport, tennis is often more than just about the game: It’s about the people. Team loyalties are out of the window, and aside from an affinity to watch prettiness – the Del Potro forehand, the Gasquet backhand, the impeccable moves of a Djokovic, Nadal or Federer – there are those colourful personalities that make any match in this sport always worth watching.

Which is why when the presence of said personalities in a final comes round, everyone gets to share in the joy, and this Sunday, we did. We met Benoit Paire.

Benoit Paire in action in Belgrade, Serbia

At twenty-one-years-old this Frenchman boasts an impressive physique where his long legs and long torso meet with a perfectly sculpted piece of facial hair that would make American hipsters cry in envy. It’s not Benoit’s athletics that give him his fans, it’s his fabulous repertoire of on-court theatrics that does.

Catch him drinking cans of sugary Coca-Cola during changeovers in his matches, or pointing angrily at the heavens as he mutters away in French to all and sundry. Watch him stalk around in little circles between points and try to strategize as he alternates between flubbed misses and shots of absolute brilliance. Meet the French hurricane that is Benoit Paire, and you’ll never look away from the side courts again.

I won’t lie and pretend I noticed Benoit on a practice court once upon a time and discovered the genius within. Nor will I pretend I found him in a no-name match and was intrigued by his display. No, the only reason I found Benoit and added him to my arsenal of favourites was thanks to the draw gods of Flushing Meadows, where in 2010 he qualified and made his way to a second-round meeting with the also-pretty-and-hence-very-popular Feliciano Lopez of Spain.

It was a typical outer-court match on the third or fourth day of a Grand Slam. With many favourites still present in the draw, spectators ringed both show courts and not-so-show courts, watching epic battles present themselves as fighting qualifiers overcame seeded favourites; hometown heroes pushed against former champions; and the draw narrowed down from overwhelming 64 to a manageable 32.

Crowd favorite Feliciano Lopez is there, shaking out his long blond locks (let’s not lie, they’re a secondary character on court on any day) as he battles out a third set with French qualifier Benoit Paire. The 18-year-old’s height is only emphasized by an added three or four inches of hair – or perhaps it’s just the shape of his head. Between strokes of brilliance and flubbed shots that came out of a children’s clinic, Paire yelled at his coach in French, yelled at the crowd using body language and gibberish, and finally joined in their cheering of his opponent with an eyeroll, clapped hand to racket, and ironic, “Lopez, Lopez!”

In one word, he was hilarious.

By the end of the fourth set, we are in stitches and torn between the two oh-so-pretty yet completely lost souls on court. We are all behind Feliciano, but somehow it doesn’t seem so wrong to cheer the Frenchman for the occasional perfectly placed backhand winner, or alternatively, a dramatic display as he falls over, lies on the ground, points his racket at the sky and hurls out theatrics in French.

We’re in love.

Four months later at the Australian Open, Paire’s French superiors have appreciated his efforts in Oz, and granted him a wildcard. I find him wandering the courts on day one, standing in the shade as a crowd of Australians gather to watch Ryan Harrison hurl insults at our homeland while losing to Adrian Mannarino in the first round.

I’m always feeling a little sorry for these soldiers on their first day, like privates wandering the grounds of a Grand Slam, far cry from their usual challenger haunts. So I’m all, “Hi, Benoit?” And he doesn’t speak English, and I didn’t make it past year ten French, so all I say is, “congratulations on the wildcard… I saw you in New York.” He looks at me and there’s a glint in his eye. “You know, against Lopez.” He cracks a smile. “Great match… Very funny.” He mumbles at me, almost blushing, and walks off. It’s only later, on his profile at the ATP website, that I learn that match wasn’t memorable just for me: The US Open 2010 is Paire’s favourite tennis memory.

That is, if we don’t count what happened today. Following upsets over Fabio Fognini, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Jarko Nieminen and the number one seeded Pablo Andujar, Benoit Paire made it to his first ever ATP 250 final – and semifinal, and quarterfinal… For those of us tuning in for some Paire-patented expletive-yelling; self-pummelling or Coca-Cola-swigging, it was slightly disappointing, with Benoit staying relatively (the key word) calm as he saved break point after break point, set point after set point, match point after match point – only to be eventually broken, with both sets and the match going to his opponent, the Italian Andreas Seppi.

Disappointing? I don’t think so. Paire is a talented tennis player – his marathon match against Lopez as a teenager was testament to that, and he’s only shown it further over his last two years on the tour since. Advancing to the final in Belgrade was no fluke: the Frenchman posted win after win over higher-ranked, more experienced and certainly more consistent tennis players than he – yet he followed up each upset with another one of a higher grade. His old-school Coke swilling on the sidelines and entertaining commentary paled this week next to more old-school persistence, focus and buckets of tennis talent. More focus, less frustration and we should be getting lots more entertainment when it’s time for Flushing Meadows this year.