Federer easily handles unusual party guest in second round of US Open

by: Joel Drucker | August 30, 2018

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Court Report: Federer and Djokovic advance, with a potential quarterfinal meeting in sight

NEW YORK—It is one thing to play an opponent who digs in on every point and displays a predictable set of weapons and weaknesses. It is another thing to play Benoit Paire. Having fought off two match points against him at a grass-court event in Halle this past June (and also beaten him in straight sets in their other five meetings), Roger Federer was well aware of the Frenchman’s casino playing style and the roulette wheel-like moments that accompany it. Consider Federer’s 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 second-round victory over Paire today less a triumph of the will and more one of maintaining proper focus versus an opponent best described as semi-dangerous.

The Paire backhand is exquisite, a sleek, well-crafted drive. Ditto for the serve, at least at those times when Paire opts to bring his entire body into the stroke. The volleys, to use a pet term from the late Hall of Famer Pancho Segura: questionable, showing the lack of discipline often seen among recreational players in the form of late preparation and last-minute flicks. Paire’s forehand is one of the worst in contemporary tennis, the swing resembling an ice cream scoop.

These disparate skills, though, can come together in the oddest ways at various random points. There is little rational construction to Paire’s tactical array. A big serve might be followed by a double-fault. Two sharp backhands is no guarantee of three. And the forehand is a decayed tooth merely awaiting the root canal. Yet somehow, with a slash and a sprint and more than an occasional tumble to the ground, the 6’ 5” Paire has built a career for himself (if not the quite the one predicted for him in this article from 2013). 

While the likes of Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer require an obvious form of vigilance, Paire is elliptical, able to impose himself on his opponents with a puzzling mix of engagement and disinterest. He’s the guy at the party with a doctorate who can one minute hold your attention with insights on cancer, stick out an elbow and knock off the guacamole bowl, then vanish into the private library before emerging to dance with the hostess’ best friend.     

The discordant dimension that’s part of playing Paire weighed on Federer early in the match. It’s not easy playing someone who will hand away so many points—but not all of them. Compounding matters was the sustained harsh weather, near 90 degrees and quite muggy on a cloud-covered afternoon. 

Serving at 4-3, 30-30 in the first set, Federer made two groundstroke errors. Paire soon served at 5-all, 30-love. Do you really want to play a tiebreaker versus this guy? But Paire then rather lazily tried to carve a backhand volley out of a Federer forehand passing shot and ended up only performing a partial upper body spin. At 30-15, Paire approached the net so casually you’d think he was playing the Pro-Am. Next, a double-fault. Seizing reprieval from the craps game of a tiebreaker, Federer knew precisely what to do, cracking his forehand back to Paire’s to earn the go-ahead break and then served out the set at love. 

The second and third sets were similar demonstrations of Federer seeking to maintain focus in the face of Paire’s random rambles. In the second, the break came with Paire serving at 2-2. In the third, at 1-1 and again, at 1-3. Though Federer dropped serve at 4-1—Paire naturally at this stage coming up with a few inspired dashes, strikes and arm gestures in a quest for crowd support—it was hard to imagine he had the skill to break Federer twice in the same set. 

While certainly there were traces of Federer’s genius—how could there not be?—so much of the ebb and flow of this match was in Paire’s hands. Federer’s mission was to mostly stick around, pop in his share of first serves, make smart shot selection decisions and, when appropriate, scrape away at the tartar piled around Paire’s forehand. Great to see you, Benoit. Don’t worry about the guacamole. We’ll have the valet get your car. 

Three hours later: Honey, who was that guy with the beard? 

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