How do you know you’re a true tennis fan? If you’ve ever tweeted—or even heard of—the hashtag #JulienBenneteauTitleWatch, you probably qualify.
The phrase may sound preposterous, but it came about for an understandable reason: Benneteau, a 35-year-old French veteran, has reached 10 finals in his 17-year career, and lost all 10. In 2014, his struggles went from the unfortunate to the absurd when he made the final in Kuala Lumpur for the third straight year, only to lose it for the third straight time. The Title Watch is an ironically affectionate way to recognize the popular Frenchman’s efforts. It’s seems preferable, at least, to the way fans talked about Anna Kournikova when she failed to win a tournament a decade ago.
According to Benneteau, this week is his last chance to end that run of futility in front of the home folks in Bercy; he’s going to retire at some point in 2018 and won’t be back here. The event was the site of one of his career highlights, a three-set win over Roger Federer in 2009 that left the Frenchman in tears. Now, in his last hurrah, Benneteau is in the process of creating one more memorable moment at home.
The world No. 83, who was just 9-13 before this week, is making the most of his wild card. He beat Denis Shapovalov for the second time this season. He ended his friend and countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s 11th-hour effort to make the World Tour Finals in London. And in his cleanest match so far, he rolled over David Goffin in straight sets to reach the quarterfinals.
“Julie-yen!” the capacity crowd chanted on side court No. 1 today in Bercy. This confined arena was perfectly suited to Benneteau’s attacking style. One year younger than Roger Federer—the two knew each other in juniors—Benneteau learned the sport in the 1990s, when net-rushing was still a viable path to victory. On Thursday, he showed off his old-fashioned, highly polished game, one that took him to a career-high No. 25 in 2014 and helped him win the French Open doubles with Édouard Roger-Vasselin the same year.
Benneteau hit aces when he needed them. He caressed his two-handed backhand into the corners. He charged in on Goffin’s second serve and finished points with touch volleys. Unlike today’s young gunslingers, Benneteau can’t rely on bullet winners from the baseline; he needs a set-up shot, and a finishing shot. But he won his share of toe-to-toe rallies with Goffin, who has been nursing a leg injury through the second half of the season. The Belgian still has the World Tour Finals and the Davis Cup finals to go, and he didn’t show much interest in staging a comeback today.
But Benneteau was in command, something that hasn’t always been the case. Weapons, or the lack thereof, were always a problem for him; he had all the shots, but none of them were the reliable killers that today’s top players own. He reached the quarterfinals at the French Open in 2006, but two of his most memorable moments—one good, one not so good—came within weeks of each other at the All England Club in 2012. At Wimbledon, he led the eventual champion, Federer, two sets to love before losing. Two weeks later, though, he was back on Court 1 for the Olympics, rolling around on the grass joyously after securing a bronze medal in doubles with Richard Gasquet.
Like many of his countrymen, Benneteau hasn’t won the big ones—or any ones—but he has added to the game’s style quotient. Everything about him, from his crisp clothes to his compact backhand, already feels like a throwback, a classic. And that has been the pleasure of watching him: Even if he wasn’t a dominant player, everything about his game felt like it was in the right place, and in the right proportion.
On Friday, Benneteau will try to keep his dream alive against either Marin Cilic or Roberto Bautista Agut. The title might be a long shot, but we’ll be happy to watch while we can.