NEW YORK—Benoit Paire was about to serve at 5-4 in the fifth set, and he really needed to talk to someone. This being a tennis match, he couldn’t call his coach over from the other side of the court, or even ask for advice from the fans sitting nearby. So he made do with the person closest to him, the chair umpire.

“One more game,” Paire said as he furiously rewrapped his grip.

Not receiving an answer from on high, the Frenchman turned slightly in the umpire’s direction and repeated himself.

“One more game.”

Paire never did get a response, and it’s hard to imagine he expected one. By that point, the 26-year-old was simply thinking out loud, trying as hard as he could to remind himself that he was just a single service game, a measly four points, away from the biggest win of his career. When the umpire finally called time, though, Paire apparently hadn't convinced himself that he could pull it off. As the seconds ticked away and the crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium stood to cheer, he kept wrapping away furiously at his grip.

There was no way out of it, though. While Paire had saved two match points in a fourth-set tiebreaker and caught fire in the fifth, he still needed one more hold of serve to eliminate No. 4 seed and 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori, and record the first Top 5 win of his career. In the end, despite losing the first point, Paire strutted through the final game like it was a proverbial promenade dans le parc. By then, after three hours and 10 minutes of play, he knew he had an unbeatable weapon up his sleeve—or, more precisely, just below his sleeve.

Paire had been serving lights out for most of the afternoon, and no matter how worried he was at this moment, no amount of anxiety was going to get in the way of that shot now. At 0-15, he hit a service winner; at 15-15, he dared to come in behind a second serve and won the point; at 30-15, he hit another service winner; and at match point, he uncorked a 133-M.P.H. ace, his 21st of the day.

“I had a really good serve today,” Paire said afterward, as if that were all the explanation that was needed for his stunning win.




He had more than that, of course. The Frenchman, like so many other Frenchmen, is the definition of mercurial, often-inexplicable tennis talent. On one point, Paire might try a shot between his legs for no reason whatsoever. After another, he’ll smash his racquet to smithereens. But on the third, he might pull off the most exquisitely carved drop shot, or brilliantly struck two-handed backhand, or audacious leaping return of serve that you’ve seen all year.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t a pattern that wins Paire a lot of important matches. Before today, he was just 3-3 at the majors this season, and he has spent most of 2015 laboring at the Challenger level. At some point, if they can keep him out there long enough, his opponents can be fairly sure he’s going to blow at least one of his gaskets. And it nearly happened on Monday. Along the way, Paire had a few other, less-polite things to say to the chair umpire.

Yet despite having never beaten Nishikori before, Paire chose to keep it together and fight this time. By the fifth set, he had the world No. 4 on the run, and would finish with 64 winners.




“It was impossible to imagine I could beat Nishikori today,” Paire said after his 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory. “I saved two match points, so I’m really lucky.”

On the surface, fortune did go Paire’s way in the fourth-set tiebreak, when Nishikori's game suddenly turned inexplicable. Up 6-4, with the match in hand, he let fly with four unforced errors. Before today, Nishikori was 11-0 in deciding sets against players ranked outside the Top 15 this season. Yet it was the 41st-ranked Paire who raised his game in this final set. All in all, it was a disappointing way for Nishikori to end a summer that had begun with a title in Washington, D.C. and continued with a convincing win over Rafael Nadal in Toronto.

Yet Nishikori’s loss also fit a pattern that he has developed in 2015. On the plus side, he has been the master of the mid-level tournament, winning 500-level events in D.C. and Barcelona, and a 250 in Memphis. On the minus side, that success hasn’t carried over at bigger tournaments. He lost in the quarters at the Australian Open and French Open, withdrew from Wimbledon, and has now lost his opener at the U.S. Open. Perhaps more surprising, he has still reached just one Masters final in his career. We can’t say 2015 has been a bad season for Nishikori—he’s 46-11—but we can say that he hasn’t lived up to the expectations that his run to the final here last year produced.

Afterward, Nishikori credited Paire’s aggressive play as the difference. While Kei was coming off a hip injury that he suffered in Montreal, he said that physically he felt fine.

“It’s very sad to lose always first round,” Nishikori said, “but I think he was playing good tennis. So I mean, I don’t think I played bad...I mean, I had match point and I kind of lost a little bit my forehand.”

Nishikori also pronounced himself satisfied with his hard-court summer.

“I think it was good,” he said. “I mean sad, you know, losing first match here, but I play good tennis in Montreal, too, and I won Washington, you know, first time."

“I don’t know what happened today, but I think I’ve been playing good. I think it’s been one of the best years so far. Just try to focus again next couple of months and try to aim for London.”

After watching him win in D.C., I wrote that this August, with two Masters events and a Slam coming up fast, was the time for Nishikori to prove that he could be something more than the master of the mid-level. I wondered whether, despite his obvious talent and dedication, he shared the sky-high expectations that players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have always had for him. Was Kei arrogant enough to think of himself as a Grand Slam champion, rather than just an excellent player who makes his fair share of endorsement money? Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena: None of them feel like they're doing their jobs, or living up to their potential, if they aren't winning majors.

Hearing Nishikori, who will be 26 in December, say he’s just aiming for London makes me wonder again whether he shares their champions’ mentality. And for all of the talk about his outstanding record in deciding sets, Nishikori hasn't won them at the biggest events this year, either; he lost in five sets at the French Open, and now in New York.




Still, he remains ahead of where, say, Stan Wawrinka was at 25. And he’s right that Paire played superbly. It was a match that showed off the best of French tennis, one of those semi-rare occasions when all of that flair doesn’t just exist for its own sake, but comes together to produce a significant result. Naturally, Paire, echoing his countryman Gael Monfils, said he went out there just to enjoy himself.

“My coach told me the most important thing when you go on the court, you win, you lose, you don’t care, just have fun.”

Paire said that after taking a few big swings early, he realized that he was playing and serving pretty well, and over the course of the match his sense of pleasure slowly hardened into determination. Yet until his final ace thudded against the tarp, he wasn’t sure he could make a fun afternoon into a winning one.

When it was over and Paire reached up to shake the chair umpire’s hand, he asked him, with a bit of disbelief in his voice, “I did it, huh?” This time the umpire responded with a nod and a smile. He had done it; he had won one more game.