It's time to give Benoit Paire a break - men's tennis is desperate for fiery characters
Benoit Paire has been making headlines again with the French star attracting criticism following another first-round exit, this time at the Monte Carlo Masters. But in her latest column, Caitlin Thompson argues for some understanding for the world number 35, who like many of us has had to adjust to a new work dynamic during the pandemic.
Benoit Paire of France reacts during the match against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece as part of the Telcel Mexican Open 2021 at Princess Mundo Imperial on March 16, 2021 in Acapulco, Mexico
It’s no secret that those of us who harbour feelings of excitement over the tour’s more outsized personalities have had Benoit Paire on our radar for quite some time.
The flamboyant Frenchman, known just as much for his on-court theatrics - approach-shot tweeners, spectacularly determined destruction of racquets, a sometimes Kafka-esque demeanour - as much as his off-court style and enthusiasm for nightlife has found himself again at the centre of controversy after this week’s bizarre showing at the Monte Carlo Masters.
He's lost in the first round at the past eight tournaments (taking place over the past 10 weeks) culminating in an insanely funny and somewhat existentially bleak match this past weekend in a three-set loss to Jordan Thompson. Despite playing with what can only be described as a deep ambivalence, he managed to come within two points of winning the third-set tiebreak, and his rope-a-dope approach to the match had his opponent in knots.
It’s hard not to feel for Thompson’s baffled reaction to Benoit’s casual spectacle of inhuman winners and raft of dismal double faults, the last of which sealed the match and meant yet another early exit for Paire.
After the match, he was quoted as saying: "Honestly I don't give s**t about this match. Playing in a cemetery like this, it's just not possible anymore. All the players think it. I am perhaps the only one to say it. Tennis is no longer bringing me anything good. I've got no more spark."
Hours later, he posted a picture of himself shrouded in smoke (origins unknown) in what can be assumed to be out at a club, which is his standard dynamic at the moment, and then had a middle-finger emoji to throw in in response to Jordan's Instagram recap of the match.
It’s easy to understand why tennis fans and commentators have taken to dunking on him for not trying, showing up at these tournaments to lose, complain and party - but this past weekend’s efforts might be illustrating something universal about how hard it is for any of us to do our jobs with any sense of normalcy right now.
Paire has been outspoken about how much he needs the energy of the spectators to play well, and the brief window where a full stadium of fans was allowed into the Australian Open - buoying hometown favorites Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkanakis to strong showings - hearkened back to a time when crowd electricity gave players a dynamic to feed off. Taking that interaction away, and adding in its place an exacting quarantine rigmarole for event after event, must deeply impact their feeling for the game.
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Paire has lost his clothing sponsor in Lacoste, playing now with an unbranded kit that looks like it might’ve been picked up off the shelf at your local sports retailer, but close watchers of the Thompson match would’ve briefly seen an appearance by the alligator logo on his white wristbands before he turned them inside out at the start of the match.
He’s entered in the next clutch of tournaments ahead in the clay season, and it’s clear that unless vaccine availability, adoption and infection rates (especially in Europe) change drastically, we’ll see this dynamic continue to play out for him until fans can return to stadiums.
He’s a richly rewarded professional athlete, so this isn’t a call for pity, but just as he’s free to play in any and all tournaments his ranking qualifies him to enter, he’s also free to complain about it and make a spectacle of himself whether playing or partying.
The men's tour desperately needs relatable and fiery characters in an era when the Big 3 have been sanded down to perfectly media trained automatons, and if this is the price of doing business with a Benoit (or a Nick Kyrgios, or Thanasi Kokkanakis for that matter), then it's well worth it. The rest of us watching are free to enjoy the show.