French Open 2019: Benoit Paire’s ride ends in five-set loss to Kei Nishikori, but not before serving reminder of his potential

What makes a circus appealing? For me as a kid, the trapeze artists and the animal shows were always fun, but what I really waited for was the clown show. It wasn’t so much that I found them funny; it was more that they were so unpredictable — literally, anything could happen in them — that I constantly marvelled at the kind of mind that could produce such a script.

Watching a Benoit Paire match often brings back those childhood memories. Paire can amaze you with his skill (the way one would be mesmerised at a clown juggling a million balls), can make you cringe with his slip-ups (how many times did we roll our eyes when a clown randomly fell over for laughs?) and can even make you fear for his sanity (does anything about a clown’s performance suggest there isn’t a little craziness behind it all?). It is one gigantic circus ride when Paire is on the court.

 French Open 2019: Benoit Paire’s ride ends in five-set loss to Kei Nishikori, but not before serving reminder of his potential

Paire stood out with his wild shot-making against Nishikori. AFP

But over the course of the 2019 claycourt season, Paire’s circus ride has not only entertained, but it has also brought results. First came the titles in Marrakech and Lyon, the second and third of his career respectively. And now at Roland Garros, it has taken a dogged Kei Nishikori to drive him out in the fourth round, but not before the Frenchman had already established himself as the most watchable player of the tournament.

Paire was veritable box office commodity this week. His second round match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert was an exhibition that was equal parts artistic and grueling; for 4.5 hours, the two men waged a shot-making battle so intense that it brought Court Suzanne Lenglen to its feet.

Every deft winner by one player was answered by an even better one by the other. And every impossible get was countered by a devil-may-care sprint that threatened to tear the ground apart. Paire vs Herbert was the classic that nobody saw coming, and which nobody could take their eyes off.

Many of us thought we had reached Peak Paire by the end of that match. Surely this had to be the end of his tether, the full utilisation of his considerable gifts. There was nowhere to go but down from there; a letdown in the next match seemed inevitable.

Except that the only thing that was inevitable was continued entertainment from the Frenchman. After disposing of an injured Pablo Carreno Busta in the third round, he sprang to life again in the second set against Nishikori. This was the first time that Paire had reached the fourth round of his home Slam, and he seemed determined to make it count.

It has to be said that Nishikori was far from his best in the match. He frequently made a mess of easy putaways, didn’t find his best first serves on the big points, and even missed a slew of routine shots off his trusted backhand wing. But is it really possible to play your best when there’s a Mad Hatter’s tea party going on at the other side of the net?

If the Herbert match was Peak Paire, the one against Nishikori was Classic Paire. There was a bit of everything in it — glorious winners, unpredictable drop shots, casual double faults, diving volleys and in the end, choking of the highest order. That the match had to be carried over from the previous day due to bad light was the least of anyone’s concerns; whether the match would be completed without a full-blown meltdown was what everyone was more interested in.

Nishikori had the chance to put the contest to bed in the fourth set, but failed to capitalise on match point. Then Paire was a break up twice in the fifth (even serving for the match at 5-4), but couldn’t find the court with his serve or his groundstrokes. At one stage, it seemed like neither player wanted to win the match, presumably because they knew how much of a can’t-watch-but-still-can’t-take-your-eyes-away spectacle it had turned into.

While all the scoreboard drama was going on, the actual tennis on show wasn’t any less theatrical. Paire tried hitting drop shots from practically every corner of the court, with predictably wide-ranging results. Nishikori alternated inch-perfect forehands with wildly inaccurate ones, making us wonder whether he was deliberately trying to be ‘all over the court’. And both men threw in their share of backhand winners that skipped off the line devastatingly, sending waves of disbelief around the arena.

That Paire eventually ended up on the losing side wasn’t exactly shocking; he’s had a career full of such ‘so close yet so far’ reverses. The difference this time, however, was how invested he remained till the very end. The image of Paire winning a big point and following it with a rousing cry towards the crowd, urging them to make more noise, will be in our minds for a long time.

The 30-year-old has been known to lose focus mid-way through a match or even outright tank, but that never seemed like a possibility in his Roland Garros run. He wanted it this time; he was willing to go the distance no matter how much it took out of him. The drop shots were still comically ill-advised at times, but the intention was always to pull one over the opponent. That’s just the Paire Template to win matches, and that’s exactly what we got to see throughout the week in Paris.

The Frenchman’s forehand remains a liability, and his double faults aren’t going away any time soon. Will either of those things make him any less entertaining though? If the first four rounds of the 2019 French Open are any indication, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’.

A Benoit Paire match is the ultimate circus ride in tennis. We may have only got to see four shows of it at Roland Garros this year, but the next time he’s in Paris, we’ll know what tickets to spend all of our money on.

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 08:27:08 IST