Every man has a breaking point. You have one. So do I. Clearly Benoît Paire has reached his. Actually, it seems as if he got there a while back. I first saw Paire at Wimbledon in 2014. He was playing Lukas Rosol in the first round on an outside court and losing.
Tall, elegant and amusingly disdainful of everything in his immediate orbit, he was also brilliant, losing while producing bravura drives, freakish slice, comical drop shots, and doing that thing some athletes have where even a game as technical and difficult as tennis becomes simply a canvas for talent.
Paire lost, ingloriously, to an inferior player, and hated it, bouncing his racket and drawing a round of florid boos. But it was already clear it would be necessary to watch all his matches from then on. In the interview room, he told the world: “Simply, I hate Wimbledon and I’m glad to leave as soon as possible,” and I liked him even more.
In the years since, Paire has occasionally glittered. He has three ATP singles titles to his name and a highest world ranking of 18th. It’s a fine, unremarkable career. Until the last year, when life itself has become remarkable – not to mention gruelling and broken – and being Benoît has become something else entirely.
There is no more absurd figure in global sport than Paire, who is essentially trapped inside tennis. He’s out there operating without restraint, beyond the pale of acceptable human conduct.
In the past year, Paire has played 23 matches, losing 20 of them, often limply, and retiring four times, most recently in defeat to Jaume Munar in Parma on Wednesday. And yet he keeps on coming back, taking his place for another first round (and guaranteed €60,000 paycheck) at Roland Garros this weekend.
This state of suspended animation is a side-effect of the freezing of ranking points over the pandemic. It means Paire remains 40th in the world, despite barely competing. He keeps getting the invites, keeps getting paid, no matter how badly he plays – or behaves.
This bad cosmic joke, man trapped inside the machine, has been accompanied by a kind of public “acting out”. Paire stopped training.
He talks in a way that is unnervingly raw. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn about this match,” he could be heard shouting after defeat at Monte Carlo (“a cemetery”).
February’s Australian Open was “shit”, “really crap”, “shameful” and “grotesque”. At the Argentina Open in March he spat on the court, sulked and folded. In April he was banned from the French Olympic team due to “deeply inappropriate behaviour”.
It is hard to avoid the sense this isn’t simply someone being a doofus (although it is also that) but the sound of a man trapped inside his own sealed world, able to escape but also unable, and spitting and hissing like a cat in a swimming pool.
Let’s be clear, Paire is not a hero. He’s not a victim. He’s not out there righting wrongs. Other players would love to have his opportunities, and might respect them a little more. Dominic Thiem, who is well adjusted and more correct in his attitudes, and has spoken coherently about mental health issues, has advised him to “take a vacation”. But no, Benoît isn’t going to take a vacation. He is tied to his wheel of fire. And he has two redeeming features.
Primo, he’s likable. In the style of one of those alcoholic American comedians who shout and swear and say: “Here’s the freakin’ thing, OK,” he tells the truth. Often when he acts like a doofus, he’s preferable to the person he’s acting like a doofus towards.
Per esempio, this is not the first time Paire has been kicked out of the Olympics. “The France team, it is not an open bar, there are rules to follow,” was the verdict of Arnaud Di Pasquale, technical director of the France squad as Paire was ejected from the Olympic village in 2016. “I am happy to leave,” was Paire’s response. I don’t know about you. But I’m kind of team Benoît here.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach, is a cautious sympathiser. “You have to pretend you’re a very, very good person, otherwise you’re a bad guy,” he has said of professional tennis. And it is a weird environment, with its county club stylings, its code violation shtick, its censorious chair Daleks, the conviction the world is about to fall apart if people don’t suppress their feelings sufficiently.
Paire may not be the French existentialist lockdown hero we need, but he’s the French existentialist lockdown hero we’ve got. There is a tradition of this kind of protagonist, who may not be admirable or strong or morally instructive, but who sees the world clearly, or at least through a haze of rage, confusion and insight.
And we have all been in that place this past year to some degree, where the world seems to be folding in on you, and the hardest thing is to remain calm, balanced and unafraid. For the past six months I’ve felt as if my head has been stuffed with tissue paper, my living experience shrunk to a captive trudge around a crumb-spattered domestic cage. What is the correct response? Paire, always melancholic, has acted out his fear and panic. It seems significant he still has the support of many of his peers. The talk is of an essentially kind, slightly fragile person, trapped in the character he has created, and tortured at times by his own potential.
The word is he has a coach for the Open di Francia. Fans will be back (empty arenas spooked him). There is time to make amends. No one else has captured the stasis, the ennui, the horror of big sport in the time of plague.