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Benoit Paire and a COVID-19 Saga

Benoit Paire leaving the court at the Italian Open

Benoit Paire arrived in the New York ‘bubble’ and tested negative multiple times. But at the relocated Cincinnati Masters, he looked visibly ill and retired from his first-round match against Borna Coric after just eight games. Unsurprisingly, some suspected his illness was the coronavirus and a few days later, Paire did test positive for Covid-19. He was forced to withdraw from the US Open as a result, although seven players who had been in direct contact with him (they played poker) were allowed to compete.

Most made early exits, but Kristina Mladenovic was poised for a deep run in the women’s doubles, with she and Timea Babos the top-seeded pairing. However, despite testing negative 11 times, Mladenovic and Babos were not allowed to play their second-round match. Paire, meanwhile, was forced to spend the next two weeks in quarantine before eventually being allowed to return to Europe to begin his clay-court season.

But in his first match of the season on the ‘terre battue’ at the Italian Open, he looked short of practice, losing 2-6 1-6 to Jannik Sinner. Things did not improve much at the Hamburg Open where Paire retired trailing 4-6 0-2 to Casper Ruud in the first round, with the Frenchman stating that he felt too unwell to continue. During his post-match press conference, Paire explained what has been going on with him in the past few weeks.

Lack of practice, constant uncertainty

‘I’m tired of tennis since we start again. (…) I have to go to Rome, I play, but I didn’t practice at all,’ the Frenchman said. ‘I was positive since I arrived (in Hamburg). The only test negative is yesterday. Two in a row I was positive’.

The Hamburg Open have applied a different set of rules to those used in New York and will be in place at Roland Garros. After testing positive in Germany, Paire was not forced to withdraw from the tournament, but was instead allowed to wait for another test result the day before his match against Ruud. As that test came back negative, Paire was allowed to compete, although ultimately to no avail as he was clearly not match fit.

‘The (Hamburg Open) managed the situation better,’ Paire continued. ‘But the thing is in France, it is different. If you have a positive result, you are out of the tournament’.

According to Paire, he talked to a French doctor who spoke with him about the chances of him testing negative at Roland Garros, saying: ‘I have a 50% chance to be positive in Paris, because I have some rest of the virus. Every night I sleep, they tell me maybe you’re positive, maybe positive, maybe you play, maybe you don’t play. Maybe you can go out of the room, maybe not. For me, my life is not interesting at this time’.

Benoit Paire: victim or a danger?

It’s currently unclear whether Paire has fallen victim to unreliable testing or whether he should be self-isolating. One suspects that the answer is probably both. It certainly appears that the testing at Roland Garros is flawed, with players having received positive then negative tests in swift sequence. For example, Damir Dzumhur was forced to withdraw from the qualifying after his coach Petar Popovic tested positive for the virus.

But as the French authorities allowed them to leave the country, Popovic returned to his native Serbia where he took another test, two days after his positive result in France, which came back as negative. The same thing to happened to Poland’s Katarzyna Kawa, who was also forced to withdraw from the French Open qualifying after a positive test. Like Popovic she returned home where she took another test and, like Popovic, the result was negative.

After his struggles in the past month, Paire has said that he just ‘wants to finish the season and go home’. He does intend to travel to Paris for the French Open, where his participation will hinge on the result of a test, although it is still far from certain whether Paire should still be risking travelling or whether he can believe the test results, positive or negative. But what is clear is that if a player tests positive in Paris, that’s the end of their French Open.

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