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The Curious Case of Benoit Paire

Last September in Flushing Meadows, Benoit Paire upset defending US Open finalist Kei Nishikori in front of a quiet early round crowd. After taking control of the match in the opening sets, Paire seemed on the ropes in a tense 4th set, but capitalized on an errant forehand by Nishikori and went on to capture the next 4 points of the tie break and the match. With the victory, Paire seemed to banish so many demons of past injuries, temper tantrums, and tanked effort. Paire would go on to reach the round of 16, win two Challenger titles at the end of the year, and reach the finals of the Japan Open where he lost to good friend Stan Wawrinka. His ranking reached an all-time high of #18 in December, and 2016 seemed to be a year that would be his for the taking.

But as the 2016 tour thus far has shown, the curious case of Benoit Paire has resurfaced for fans and commentators to try and figure out. After a decent opening tournament in Chennai where he held his seed and lost in the semis to Wawrinka, all of the momentum Paire had seemed to gain up that point evaporated quickly. A second round loss to Lukas Rosol in New Zealand, the now infamous triple set tie break loss to the “awful” young American Noah Rubin, a first round thrashing by countryman Paul-Henri Mathieu at Montpiellier, followed by an uneven performance and loss to oft nemesis Ivan Dodig at Rotterdam. To say that Paire’s season is lost is an overstatement, but to say that it has not started off promising is an understatement.

In the midst of this string of losses, what is more concerning than the losses themselves is the return to a moping, unmotivated, and confusing brand of tennis that was characteristic of Paire in his younger years. Last year his game was characterized by confidence, and ability to buckle down in the tight moments, to find break point chances in the 9th game of a set, and ability to will himself to come back from holes he had dug in a match. This year, that desire has been sporadic at best.

The Australian Open loss to Noah Rubin was a good example of this unevenness. Each set went to a decisive tiebreak, and on paper that would look like an opponent who fought hard. And in some ways Paire did against the unheralded American. But throughout the match Paire threw tantrums about both the quality of his level and his opponent’s level of play. During those tiebreaks, the defending NCAA runner up Rubin seemed focused, energetic, and in control. Paire more so seemed angry that he had found himself in a tiebreak in the first place and unfocused throughout. He then rushed to press after the loss to lament the poor quality of the opponent that had just beaten him in straight sets, and who had statistically played a high quality match. Paire’s affinity for tanking also seems to have returned. After a questionable thrashing by Mathieu, Paire’s close loss to Dodig in Rotterdam was fraught with strange shot selection. In between the leg volleys that sat up for Dodig to pass. Double faults in weird moments–negative body energy throughout. There is a thin line between “tanking” and being simply mentally absent from a match due to stress, anger, etc. Perhaps Paire was suffering more from the latter, but it often seemed during these losses that Paire would check out emotionally of the big moments, rather than dealing with the on-court stress and pushing through to victory, as if it was easier to just go to give up, get your massage, and find a nice place to eat.

As stated earlier, Paire still has plenty of time to salvage this season and ranking. If he is able to shake off this moody, uninterested persona and find that charm in his game that he often finds on social media, he will then be able to continue his climb in the rankings. One good performance at Miami or one of the clay Masters events leading into the French Open and commentators and Twitter fans alike will forgive this sluggish start. However, as often is the case on tour, results beget results, and poor results can often compound questions a competitor already has about his or her game. For Paire to reclaim a successful season, he will need to find a good run in a tourney soon, and remind himself of the attitude and fight he displayed at the close of 2015.

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