Asked recently how he would describe himself as a player, Roger Federer had no reluctance to reply, “Elegant.” But the Swiss hasn’t cornered the market on tennis savoir-faire. A couple of years back in Halle, Germany, Roger took the grass court against a Frenchman who more than matched him, not just in languid appearance but for much of the match in all-court talent. None of this should have surprised the French press. Early in his career, Benoit Paire was cited by a panel of experts from l’Equipe, the French sports journal, as the future top player in the world. To state the obvious, things haven’t turned out that way. Plagued by a wonky knee—Paire needed surgery in 2014—and an equally wobbly psyche, Paire has never finished the year higher than No. 19.
That day in Halle, however, he gave the all-time greatest grass court star absolute fits, first as a fashion plate, then as an opponent. Six feet five inches tall and imperially slim, Paire sports a dark, shovel-shaped beard of the sort that existentialists used to wear at Café Deux Magots. And he struts around the court like a royal marine on parade. Costumed by Lacoste, he has his collar turned up and somehow manages to keep it like that through hotly disputed points. On that occasion, to add a touch of eccentricity to his ensemble, his hair was dyed bright silver.
His game was as astonishing as his appearance. Long-armed and long-legged, he put enormous torque on the ball, particularly with his backhand. His first serve was a legitimate weapon and he had a keen nose for the net. Frequently he pounced on Roger’s second serve and rushed in for a winning volley. The shakiest part of his arsenal was his forehand, he almost always hit much too late and without his looking at the ball. Still, he seemed to have the match in hand until…until suddenly he didn’t. Betrayed by his forehand, let down by his second serve, he somehow contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Still he arrived at the 2019 French Open on a sweet run, having taken titles this spring in Marrakesh and a week before Roland Garros in Lyon. He battled through the first three rounds in Paris, and found himself on Sunday as the last Frenchman standing. Pitted against Kei Nishikori who had on a gaudy Uniqlo outfit. Federer, Uniqlo’s other top client, was left to wear a plain brown envelope—Paire by contrast was his natty self, his hair was back to its natural black, and his collar remained crisply in place even on an afternoon when a dry Saharan wind sent red brick dust scuttling across the court.
When play was suspended because of darkness, the former top tenner from Japan led two sets to one. But Paire crawled all over Nishikori’s second serve to force a final deciding set.
The fifth set of a Grand Slam, Boris Becker famously declared, is not about tennis. It’s about character, and as the Greeks—not Tsitsipas, the ancient Greeks!—put it, character is fate. And fate is a fickle-fingered beast. For long stretches, Paire looked likely to escape whatever the tennis gods had in store for him. He walloped his service returns, tormented the diminutive Japanese with drop shots, and managed to keep his forehand from becoming a liability. Fizzing with calculated aggression, the Frenchman broke to 5-3 and served for a place in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
It would be a polite obfuscation to say that Nishikori lifted his game. The truth was Paire let his chance slip away as old weaknesses and nervous tics returned to haunt him. He double-faulted. He flubbed a volley. He dished up a duck of a second serve and Nishikori put it away for a winner. It didn’t require a gift of godly foresight to realize then that Nishikori, not Paire, would advance. But Benoit would, with the exception of a single scream, accept his loss like a good soldier and march off court with his head held high and his collar still turned up.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, the most recent being The Lost Prince: A Search for Pat Conroy.