TC DESK: Rublev chats with Prakash Amritraj

It was hard to imagine fourth-seeded Andrey Rublev was ever going to lose his Western & Southern Open quarterfinal match versus Benoit Paire. But there is no soothsayer alive who could imagine the range of queries the 23-year-old Russian would be forced to field en route to a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over a resurgent and intermittently captivating Frenchman.

The first set gave no indication of the questions to come. Paire served first and was broken at love by an opponent who played with martinet-like urgency. An in-form Rublev is profoundly oppressive, as he batters one hard, flat and deep groundstroke after another and seemingly sprints in between points. In those early stages, all Rublev saw was the ball, Paire scarcely visible. The Frenchman also hardly helped his cause by rushing between points, precisely the opposite of what’s best when losing. It took all of 19 minutes for Rublev to claim the opener.

Pity anyone who dares attempt to understand the layers of desire and discipline that govern Benoit Paire. No professional tennis player has more verbalized the struggles that accompanying playing tennis amid the pandemic, Paire anguished by everything from bubble life to the absence of crowds. The fallout from all this has affected him heavily. From last August until Wimbledon this year, Paire’s match record was 3-23. But this week, in a far more normalized Cincinnati, he won a trio of three-setters, including dramatic and decisive victories over Denis Shapovalov and John Isner. “I could enjoy the normal life,” said Paire. “I just want to enjoy . . . I just need to be good in my head.”

In the second set, as if awoken from a nap, Paire at last arrived. With Rublev serving at 1-2, deuce, Paire lined an inside-out backhand return winner and captured the game on the next point. For Rublev, the tennis court is a rectangle, a set of precise lines and roads to be navigated precisely. For Paire, it’s a circle, a funhouse of infinite mirrors and random bags of cotton candy. Paire repeatedly blunted Rublev’s concussive groundstrokes with drop shots, assorted sorties to the net, delicately angled volleys, big serves and several crackling backhands ripped down-the-line and crosscourt. He also hung steady on his longstanding balky forehand, often by absorbing Rublev’s pace just well enough to keep the rally alive and make his way to net.


Rublev is now 40-13 this season.

Rublev is now 40-13 this season.

Given how skillfully Rublev had prosecuted the first set, it was remarkable to see Paire turn the tables and expose Rublev’s disciplined view of tennis as arguably rigid and limited. “It’s always tough to play against Benoit,” said Rublev. “He’s really talented.”

If not exactly elegant in the way of a Roger Federer art piece, as the second set wore on, there was certainly a mesmerizing quality to Paire’s ability to effectively weave a spider web all his own. Consider even the final point of the 36-minute second set. Rublev drilled a forehand approach shot down the line, hard and into the corner. Paire threw up a skyscraper of a defensive lob that went deep and down the middle. Rublev scampered to field it, only to fire his smash long.

Call the third set a contest between diligence and inspiration. “I was ready for him to show his best level,” said Rublev. A pivotal moment came following a game Rublev lost. With Paire serving at 2-3, the game went to deuce eight times. Rublev held four break points. On the fourth, he directed three straight balls to Paire’s forehand—only to subsequently net a facile inside-out forehand.

With Paire having shown such resolve to even the set, it would have been easy for Rublev to be demoralized. But he had more important things to tend to. During that 3-3 game, at 15-all, Rublev snapped a shoelace. Fixing it required a whole other focus than dwelling on those lost break points. Rublev went on to hold comfortably and in the next game, earned another break point. But Paire made the perilous leap from creative to careless, attempting a readable drop shot from a poor position. In scampered Rublev, eliciting a weak lob that he easily put away. Serving at 5-3, 30-all, Rublev closed out the match with consecutive aces.

Rublev next plays his fellow Russian, first-seeded Daniil Medvedev. Though Rublev has failed to take a set off Medvedev in their four prior ATP matches, at least this battle will take place versus a familiar opponent on a clearly defined playing surface. “My good friend Daniil again,” said Rublev. “It’s a nice challenge for me to see what I can improve . . . It’s going to be a chess match.”

Medvedev avenged his Tokyo Olympics defeat in emphatic fashion with a 6-1, 6-1 demolition of Pablo Carreño Busta.