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Benoit Paire Living the American Dream

Many players have been sapped of energy this week in New York, with the extreme humidity and head cold passing round to boot. But Frenchman Benoit Paire appears to have a new lease of life, and is playing with the intensity and vigour that has often been astray in his game. In years gone by, Paire would either be called wonderfully nonchalant – an enigma, as we have a habit of calling tennis players like this (Fognini and Kyrgios spring to mind) – or painfully blasé; a player with his “head not in the right place”. That cliché was certainly exercised when Paire was captured tanking July this year at the San Benedetto tournament, a Challenger event. But this week has been one where Paire has excelled and played the best of his care-free, flashy tennis.

When the US Open draw was made and the first round matches cast, few probably would have expected Benoit Paire to oust last year’s finalist Kei Nishikori. Indeed the Frenchman had taken his first ATP crown in Bastad only a month before, but he had also suffered a premature exit to 19-year-old Hyeon Chung 6-1 6-4 in Winston-Salem at the end of August. So it appeared to be same old Benoit Paire: the epitome of indifference. In a best of five sets meeting then, Paire was not expected to be able to retain a good enough level to defeat Nishikori. But the Frenchman did, and it went the distance to five sets as well. He sent the Japanese superstar crashing out 6-4 3-6 4-6 7-6 6-4. Nishikori had led by two sets to one and had two match points in the fourth set, only for Paire to battle back and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The match had been labelled a meeting of flair and grit, and I suppose that came into fruition – although not quite in the way expected.

Next came world #84 Marsel Ilhan who – not to disrespect him – seemed to represent the comedown that would vanquish Paire. On the back of orchestrating such a dramatic upset, the Frenchman could have easily strolled into such a match with an air of complacency. However, after the euphoric highs of the Nishikori victory on the Louis Armstrong Stadium, Paire got his head down and did the comparatively banal work of defeating Ilhan 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-3 out on Court 11. For an eccentric flair player like Paire, it was a dangerously ordinary match. And for a player who often seems to lack a lot of drive, it was perhaps a more significant win than that over Nishikori.

Despite Paire’s inferior rank of #41 to his third round opponent Tommy Robredo’s rank of #26, it was perhaps the only of Paire’s clashes where he had gone in as favourite. Having beaten the Spaniard twice in the past month – in the final of Bastad and in the last 16 of Hamburg – Paire was expected to have the edge going in to the match. He duly delivered after a scrappy first set, winning 7-6 6-1 6-1 to secure his place in the last 16 – the furthest he has ever progressed in a Grand Slam.

This fantastic run for Paire follows a painstaking recovery from a knee injury that sent his ranking plummeting after spending almost a year inside the top 30. At the start of February this year he was ranked a lowly #149 in the world, and it has been an arduous task to return to the top 50. As the controversy at the San Benedetto Challenger exemplifies though, it has not been an altogether smooth resurgence. In that match Paire then went on to quit at 2-0 down in the final set to the world #194 Filippo Volandri. Yet less than a fortnight later, the Frenchman would be holding aloft his first ATP title trophy in Bastad.

Today he faces fellow countrymen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for a spot in the quarterfinals. The clash will see Paire on the Louis Armstrong Stadium once again; a fittingly big stage for what will be a big-hitting match. Tsonga, despite a relatively disappointing year, is yet to drop a set or his serve in this year’s Open, amassing 127 winners in his three matches. It will be a challenging match for Paire, but if he can make it a match fought on the backhand side, he has every chance to continue his American dream…

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