OK, I have to start this Fourth Day of Challenger Tennis Christmas profiles with a disclaimer: I’m never going to do a better job with this Benoit Paire profile than the fabulous Tumaini over at Footfault did with his. That Paire profile was, is and forever will be the high water mark of Paire pieces.

That said, I’ve had my own eye on the crazypants from France for about a year, and he is poised for great things*, so I figured I had to take a crack at this worthwhile crackpot meself. But really, I don’t blame you if you just read Tumaini’s article and then move on to my next profile. It’s probably what I would do, if I were me. But if you’re feeling extra ambitious and/or charitable, you should read his words first and then come back to mine.

OK. Ready? Here goes. *deep breath*

Well, after that colourful and high-flying introduction to the man…

…let me bring you back to bring you back down to earth with some boring stats.

It all began for the tall (1.94 meters/6 feet 4.5 inches) righty from Avignon with an ITF junior career in which he didn’t play very much, but compiled a 16/3 record when he did – including wins over fellow 2011 Players To Watch Thomas Schoorel and Dan Cox as well as a previously documented loss to Fernando Romboli). Then in July of 2007, having just turned 18, Benoit burst onto the pro scene with a Futures title in just his second professional tournament, beating the likes of Alexandre Sidorenko, Ivan Sergeyev and Eric Prodon on his way to the championship. Of course, this being Benoit, his triumph was immediately tempered by a craplustre 2-win, 5-loss conclusion to his season, thus introducing the world to his remarkable inconsistency straight out of the gate.

In 2008, Paire had an up-and-down 27/25 record for his first full year in the pros before breaking out at a 50/29 W/L clip in 2009, albeit mostly at the Futures level. Still, he improved his ranking almost 300 spots from #628 to #332 in ’09, and the 21-year-old (and 7 months) continued his yearly halving of his ranking this year, going 53/28 and whittling it down to a tidy #152. Benoit won 3 Futures tourneys, made the finals at the Arad and San Sebastian Challengers, and went 7/3 in Slams (counting qualifying matches, of course), including memorable runs at the French Open, where he lost a highly entertaining affair to Olivier Rochus in the first round, and the US Open, where he went down in five sets to 23rd seed Feliciano Lopez in the 2nd round. But along the way, he beat Filip Krajinovic and Igor Sijsling in qualies and Rainer Schuettler in the main round.

In addition to watching a few of Paire’s matches on various livestreams, I was finally able to see him in person this past summer, during that final qualifying round match against Sijsling. And it was a massively engaging match. Benoit is a playmaker extraordinaire – there is nothing he cannot do on the tennis court, shotwise, and there’s nothing he didn’t do in that match: impossibly athletic stretched-out squash saves/recovery slashes from deep in the corners, sublime stop volleys, deft drop shots, pounding aces, hitting over, under and through the ball, and really frustrating his able opponent, who is no slouch himself (Sijsling finished the year 9/1, winning the Eckental Challenger and finishing runner-up to Dustin Brown in Aachen).

Of course, the only thing Benoit cannot do on the tennis court has nothing to do with his shotmaking, and everything to do with his head. The legendarily flighty, flaky and temperamental Frenchman just couldn’t get out of his own way at times – constantly grumbling and glaring and asking the fans seated on the baseline if they saw the ball the same way the linespeople did. The chair umpire kept having to say, “Benoit – talk to me, not to them.” He was only mollified somewhat by his coach, who muttered, “Allez, Ben,” every now and then while looking vaguely terrified.

I chatted with the inimitable Rishegee of Court Thirteen a while back, and she was privileged enough to see Benoit’s five setter with Feli. Unsurprisingly, she had a very similar experience – she, too, sat on the baseline and was concurrently captured, enraptured and horrified at the spectacle that is Benoit. Here’s a picture she took during one of his many griping sessions with/at the fans.

Anyway, enought with the pics, and onto the vid!  Well, this is the same video that’s over at FootFault; but in case you didn’t watch it there, watch it here! It’s the only halfway decent footage of Benoit on the court (in this case, a 6-4 6-3 win over Marcel Granollers at the St. Brieuc Challenger in March):

Now, 2011 awaits. Benoit has sworn that he’s trying to be calmer and more focused on the court, and that fact that he received the French Federation’s Australian Open wildcard goes some way toward showing that his well-documented troubles with the FFT have settled down a bit (or that his talent is such that it supercedes their problems with him, a la Bernard Tomic with Tennis Australia). Either way, we’ll see if he can continue halving his ranking into the next year (which would take him up to #75 in the world). There’s no doubt in my mind he has at least Top 50 talent – it’s just a question of whether his ability can outweigh his instability. It should be fascinating, as ever, to see how things go with him this year.

*pending his crazypantsitude