A year ago, French tennis player Benoît Paire spent the US Open isolated in his Long Island hotel room after testing positive for Covid-19, unable to take his place in the draw and unable to take his happy spot. found in the aftermath.
Not a pillar of consistency in normal times, Paire struggled in new ways in extraordinary times, missing the fans and shot after shot, sometimes making very little effort as opening round losses piled up.
“I was there without actually being there,” he said.
But the crowds are back, as the first day of the US Open made loud and clear on Monday when ticket holders managed to navigate the unbearably long safety lines and actually get into the tournament.
Paire left his Manhattan hotel room in the morning and made his way to Court 13, one of the outdoor courts that still feels like an outdoor court even after all the new stadium construction in Flushing Meadows.
The fans are close to the action here, and the action on the adjacent field is close as well. The fans who gathered at Court 13 soon made their loyalty clear by chanting “Benoît” far more often than the name of his worthy Serbian opponent Dusan Lajovic.
“I was happy to see the crowd again, to share a moment with the people,” Paire said. “It’s true that when people applaud a great point or a well-saved breaking point, you feel good. And it pushes you, or at least it pushes me. That’s why I play tennis. So I am enjoying it more and more and because of that I am getting back to my good level.”
Paire’s tennis clothes, freshly delivered by his new sponsor, read ‘be normal’, but that doesn’t seem like the message Paire really wants to get across.
He doesn’t look like other tennis players with the long hipster beard worthy of a 19th-century French painter: think Édouard Manet. He also has a creative side of his own: summoning half volley winners from places on the pitch where most tour players wouldn’t consider hitting a half volley winner. His two-handed backhand is smooth, versatile and often deadly. His forehand, with its strange and tight backswing, is unique and not always in a good way.
But like Nick Kyrgios, another insanely gifted tennis player who turned down the tour without his fans, Paire, in 49th place, is hard to take your eyes off with a racket in hand.
He left 40th-placed Lajovic shaking his head and grinning after some of his best shots, but while Paire clearly cared, which was certainly an improvement, he couldn’t back up his genius shots with enough solid play under duress.
There were double faults at inopportune moments, casual mistakes that looked listless, but were also due to fatigue in the heat and humidity.
Although Lajovic’s shirt was soaked with sweat early on, Paire was the one who looked the most tired, bent over and one hand on each knee as he slowly sat down to return.
But he still found the energy to let off some steam late in the second set, losing his temper after stopping the game due to a shout from the crowd and a lost point.
Tennis rules are clear on this: the point is. But Paire took offense and eventually took it out on the umbrella over Lajovic’s seat, hitting it hard enough with his racket to break the umbrella and startle the chair umpire and the fans sitting in the front few rows.
Paire got his second violation of the match code – this one for unsportsmanlike conduct – and was awarded a point. He then lost the set and the game 6-3, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4.
It was a dismal result after his joyous run to the quarterfinals at the Western & Southern Open in suburban Cincinnati earlier this month. But Paire sounded like an unusually lucky man for a first-round loser.
Another French player will miss this year’s US Open due to quarantine: Gilles Simon, who is unvaccinated and confined to his hotel room in New York after his coach tested positive for Covid. Simon was considered a ‘close contact’.
But Paire is free to wave away, free to move around the grounds that were packed on Monday as he left the not-so-lucky Court 13 and went back to the locker room with two guards running obstacles.
Not that Paire wanted to stay in his bubble. The fans kept running towards him, cellphones in hand, to pose for selfies, and while many a loser in the first round would have kept their chin down and speeding up to flee, Paire slowed down and accommodated everyone. .