“Hey guys,” reads the email that has just popped up in my inbox, “Benoit is a little hungry so can we meet at Samurai Mama around the corner from Eclectic Collectibles first?” I’m in Williamsburg; it’s a Sunday afternoon in August, the weekend before the start of the US Open. I am supposed to be shopping with the professional French tennis player Benoit Paire, age 29, currently ranked 52 in the world by the ATP. He is interested in showing me who he really is—off the court, no tennis talk—and we have agreed to meet at a vintage taxidermy boutique because Paire, when not traveling around the world for work 10 months out of the year, has an apartment in Geneva he still needs to decorate.
When Paire walks in through the tiny doorframe of the restaurant—all 6′ 5″ of him, wearing a red T-shirt with shorts, his long arms laden with bags and racquets, a black baseball cap on his head—he’s impossible to miss. He has a deep tan from playing in the sun year-round. He’s also thinner than I anticipated. He possesses the kind of lankiness that comes from exercising all the time, sure, but also from just being young. Winning tennis, as everyone knows, is more than just youthful energy, and though Paire has a formidable two-handed backhand, and enjoys pleasing the crowd with ill-advised drop shots and gratuitous, often cavalier tweeners, he has gained a cult following for being something of, well, a maniac on the court. He curses, smashes his racquet, then smashes another, curses again. Earlier that same month, Paire had a particularly outrageous outburst at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., in a match against the Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. Paire—already down one set and close to losing the second one—lost a break point and tripped backwards, falling awkwardly to the ground. Instead of getting up, he beat his racquet into the hard court, striking it one, two, three, four times. Not pleased with that, he got up—in the videos posted online, you can see the ball boy moving toward him to offer him a towel, but Paire sent him scurrying off after he hurled the smashed racquet into the ground one last time. Marching back to his side of the net, Paire kicked the flimsy white bench used during changeovers. He appeared to briefly consider righting the bench before grabbing a second racquet and slamming that one into it as well. Finally, he pulled the bench back toward him and sat down, placing his head between his hands. Unsurprisingly, he lost the match.
Paire’s behavior on the court is almost the first thing to come up after we’ve sat down. “Out of court,” he tells me, “I’m maybe someone very quiet. I like to be alone, to have time with family and enjoy with my friends. I don’t like too much to be with some people always. I like to stay relaxed and enjoy with people who are close with me. I think I’m more like solitaire—” he looks up, as he doesn’t know the word in English. Julie Schkoda, who works in marketing with Lacoste and is accompanying Paire today, chimes in: “He’s more of a lonely person. He’s happy being alone.” A loner? “Yeah,” Benoit agrees, “alone or with my best friend. That’s how I am out of the court. On court, I can look crazy.”
Paire’s temper tantrums, coupled with his flair for looking like a contender on the reality television show ‘Love Island,’ have made him something of an anomaly in the tennis world.
It’s true, the racquet-smashing rage isn’t present in the well-mannered, polite young man across from me. Paire speaks English, but with a thick French accent, and he is patient in communicating with me. After Julie orders for the table, he explains that he is a picky eater. He really only likes to eat hamburgers and pizza. Japanese food, too, now that he’s tried it and liked it. If it’s before a match, though, he’ll mostly eat pasta and rice. He pantomimes running on court with a heavy belly. One of his favorite places to get a hamburger is a spot in midtown called burger joint, which, he informs me, if you stay at the Parker Meridien, you can have ordered to the room. This is why, I’m told, he has stayed at the Parker Meridien repeatedly over the many years he’s traveled to New York to play tennis, but this time around, he’s been renting a place in Clinton Hill because he wants to see more of Brooklyn. Just a few days later, he posts a video of himself with a giant Starbucks drink, the geotag for Clinton Hill hovering to the right, #starbucks below. He likes to post pictures of food on his Instagram. That morning, he snapped and square-cropped a picture of a pancake smothered in what looked like Nutella and dotted with blueberries and raspberries. The caption was redundant but revealed, perhaps, a deadpan sense of enthusiasm: “Pancakes time. [pancake emoji].” He’s also posted pictures of pasta, Moroccan tea; prosciutto, basil, and mozzarella; an espresso [checkmark emoji]; mochi ice cream balls; plates of sushi from Nobu (one of his favorite Japanese restaurants) with the caption “NOBU”; a massive-looking steak frites; a negroni overlooking a sunset, and some form of dessert piled with whipped cream from a place called Bubble Cafe in the South of France.
A few other things he likes: his sponsor, Lacoste. Louis Vuitton. Brooklyn. Especially Brooklyn lofts. The Marais in Paris. Vintage clothes. David Beckham. “Do you know him?” he asks. “I like the soccer, so I like the player. But I like him out of court; he’s very fashion. I like the personality, I like the tattoo he has, I like everything so David Beckham.” He roots for the French soccer team Marseille, and he watches all their games when he’s traveling and tries to go when he’s not. Graffiti art. French music, especially sad French ballads, like by the French singer Hoshi, a pouty-looking young woman who wears black eyeliner, bomber jackets, and hoop earrings. “It’s very sad, it’s a sad song about love,” he informs me. “You won’t know because you don’t speak French—but it’s sad.” He likes to pop the collar of his Lacoste polo shirts. He likes tattoos, and has three of them: a triangle, a line of morse code along his forearm, and then a sentence I couldn’t read with the words scratched out. He makes the noise of a needle scratching a record to illustrate this point. “If I can do all the arm,” he says, referring to a whole sleeve of tattoos, “I’d be happy, but I don’t know what to do. So when I know and when I want I say okay and I go and do something.” He likes Nike sneakers, and his friend, who is a sneakerhead, gives him the Nikes he doesn’t like. He grew his beard because he thought he looked too young. But now he likes that, too. And he wants to dye his hair, which he bleached a few months ago, pink. He likes that, too. To have a little style on court. To be different, and not just in an angry, smashing-racquets kind of way. When he reaches for some udon noodles at the restaurant, Julie automatically stretches her arm across the table with her spoon beneath his noodles so he won’t splatter broth everywhere.
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The tennis player is a particular type in one of the world’s fussiest and most old-fashioned sports. Tennis was invented by the English as a leisure activity, and it still implies status and class today, even though in the last half of the last century it became professionalized, as tournaments began to allow for any athlete, should he (and later she) be good enough to win prize money and commercial endorsements. And though the sport has grown into a global multibillion-dollar phenomenon, of all the sports—from basketball to tennis to soccer to rugby to swimming—tennis still seems to implicitly call for a kind of bland, benign dope of a guy both on and off the court. Think of Roger Federer, happily in a suit, wearing an expensive watch at a cocktail party. Or the favorite of popular culture, Novak Djokovic, who, sure, can be a bit rascally imitating his fellow players, but still remains charmingly bland. Paire’s temper tantrums, coupled with his flair for looking like a contender on the reality television show Love Island, have made him something of an anomaly in the tennis world. Unlike Serena Williams, whose ability to wear lilac tutus and denim on the court and attend Meghan Markle’s wedding when off is celebrated and rewarded, Paire, who is European and the epitome of white male privilege, doesn’t represent empowerment or diversity or anything especially inspiring when it comes to playing the game. He’s closest, perhaps, to Andre Agassi, who was one of the first tennis players to achieve international fame, with his flowing locks (which we now know became, as he began to lose his hair, wigs), flamboyant court style, and celebrity girlfriends. The difference there, though, is that Paire is not even in the top 10 best players of the world, and Agassi, for a very long time, was tennis’ reigning champion. It’s more as though Paire has chosen to model his image after another sport, aping the soccer players who shave patterns onto their heads and decorate their bodies with a smattering of tattoos. The look, of course, is toned down with Paire, because tennis tones down everything, but it’s still there.
Paire was born in Avignon, France, and like most pros has played tennis his whole life. The sport is a grind: The season begins in January, and it ends in October. “Every week we have a different tournament,” he tells me. “Different part of the world. It’s not easy. I think if we play tennis, we enjoy to travel. Of course, I want to be at home and with my family, but I enjoy to be in a different country.” It’s difficult to see how any of these players are able to shape a personality or a life outside of playing tennis. I ask Benoit, if he could be anything other than a tennis player, what would he be? “A soccer player,” he replies, not wasting a beat. He admits tennis is a hard sport. He struggles with it. “When you go at work and you have a desk or something, nobody sees. But when you have a problem out of court and you have to play tennis, mentally, you have a problem. Maybe I have a problem in my life and maybe that’s why I break some racquets, because I don’t feel good out of the court. But people just see the match. They can’t imagine out of the court I have some problem. That’s why it’s difficult for people to understand we have another life out of the court.”
Still, Paire strikes me as being happily untroubled—I can’t quite see the shadow of a tortured soul, or of a person aching to prove something to the world and disappointed not just with himself but everyone around him when he doesn’t. The other tennis players who have become just as notorious for losing their temper (Marat Safin and Vera Zvonareva come to mind) boil over on court, and you are moved to either hate them or empathize with them, but either way, their emotional outbursts elicit a strong reaction (Safin’s was about pure animal strength that he was unable to wield to his advantage; Zvonareva’s was about becoming overcome by what she wanted but couldn’t achieve, no matter how hard she tried). During Paire’s tantrum in D.C., I felt more a sense of bafflement, or worse, a slight sense of pity—what just happened again? We like to see the complicated person who is trying to keep it together but needs to exist on the brink of something darker, and more raw, to be a champion—yet in this case Paire’s histrionics felt, on some level, performative.
After lunch, he goes to the bathroom to change, and emerges in a pink polo shirt—collar popped, naturally—and a pair of black denim skinny jeans that stop above his ankle. We agree that pink is a cool color that men can wear these days. He’s bleached his hair, but he believes that the bleach has ruined it, and he won’t take off his baseball cap. Outside he pauses in front of a mural he likes; it’s of a giraffe, and he has his friend, Antoine Miguel, or Toni, the physiotherapist who travels with him, take several photos of him and the mural on his iPhone. Paire leans casually against the wall and looks out into the distance, even though all he can see is a block or two of Metropolitan Avenue on a blandly humid day. He doesn’t smile, but he’s trying to look a little wistful, like he’s staring at something on the horizon, thinking of someone special. He kicks one leg back, so his foot rests along the wall. It reminds me of the pose of women I’d see outside the shows at Fashion Week in Milan or Paris. Later, the picture shows up on his Instagram. The caption reads: “[giraffe emoji] [eyeball emoji].”
Soon it’s time to practice, and Paire is whisked off in an Uber. In two days’ time, he will face Roger Federer at the US Open. Federer will handily defeat him. Paire will smash at least one racquet while Federer patiently waits to resume playing. Later, on his stories, that same night, I see Paire out partying. He’s in some kind of establishment with low purple lights. A group of girls are dancing in the background, a guy with no shirt and an open red bomber jacket has his arm slung around Paire’s shoulder. They are swaying to the music, most possibly a little tipsy. The friend pops open a bottle of champagne. Paire has used the emoji of the Statue of Liberty to denote he’s in New York, and 12 upside-down smiling emojis. Paire’s just a guy who likes to be alone, alone with his friends. There are problems in his life, until they’re not problems anymore.
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Thessaly La Force, based in New York City, is a writer and the features director at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.
Matthew Salacuse is a native New Yorker. He is best known for his celebrity and music photography, which can be found at salacuse.com.
This story appears in Racquet issue no. 8.