Paire Resilient If Not Predictable On Court In Dubai

Benoit Paire wins in Dubai (photo: DDFT)

DUBAI, February 25, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

There is simply no predicting what Benoit Paire can do in a tennis match. Whether it’s serving 12 double faults, throwing his racquet in frustration over a perceived injustice – resulting in a point penalty levied against him – or fending off four match points spread over two sets an hour apart. What the eighth-seeded Frenchman from Avignon did was pull out a resilient, aggro-filled victory over No. 36 Marin Cilic Tuesday afternoon in the Emirates.

It was more than a bit of a head scratcher of a match – borderline pathos, maybe? – but in the end, the 21st-ranked Paire won 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 (1) over Cilic to reach the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Paire’s statistical summary wasn’t amazing by any means – eight aces offset by 12 double faults and five breaks of his service by Cilic. Add to it, he hit 39 unforced errors – including more than just a few ill-timed and mis-placed attempts at drop shots that fell limp on his side of the net. Paire’s record in deciding tie-breaks isn’t very good this year – three of his six losses this season have come in deciders. Yet, it was the fourth time this year that he’s come back to win after losing the opening set.

Still, as lethargic as Paire might have played at times during his first-round match that began the day session on Centre Court at the Aviation Club, his opponent, the former World No. 3 Cilic, didn’t fare any better. Although total points were even at 120 for each player, Cilic also double-faulted a dozen times, including his final one on match point for Paire in the third set tie-break, and committed 40 unforced errors. It’s not easy to do all that in a two hour and 32 minute match, but he did.

The Croatian squandered two match points, serving at 5-3 in the second set. Then, he lost two more on Paire’s serve, ahead 6-5. It’s no surprise that when Cilic walked off the court, he had a look of bitter frustration, with shoulders slumped. He probably muttered to himself, “How did I lose this match?” After all, it was just Paire’s second win in seven career meetings between the former Top 20 stars. Plus, Cilic had won the last five times, including a second-round five-set marathon at last month’s Australian Open.

“I lost five times in a row against Marin,” said Paire, who began his season by reaching the final at Auckland. “Lost against him in Melbourne 7-6 in the fifth. I was not confident before the match.”

This time, whether by luck or skill, Paire might have been asking just the opposite of Cilic, “How did I win this match?” When he was asked how he won during his on-court interview, his response was simple but sincere: “I’m just lucky, honestly.” Did he think he could win? “No, honestly not,” he said. “Just lucky. I tried to stay focused until the end. I’m happy to be in the second round.”

Next, Paire, who is one of four French in the main draw, will face his friend and fellow countryman Richard Gasquet for the 10th time. The No. 56 Gasquet owns a 7-2 advantage, but Paire won their most recent head-to-head indoors in Metz last year. While he said he’s not thrilled to be playing another player from France, the tall (6-foot-5, 195 cm) and bearded Paire realizes he has no control over the draw. “Hopefully, tomorrow will be better,” he said.

In the meantime, Paire cut his on-court interview short so he could make a hasty exit. He seemed ready to hit the pool and enjoy a relaxing swim.

Djokovic won’t take Kohlschreiber lightly

When top seed Novak Djokovic faces unseeded Tour veteran and 2014 Dubai semifinalist Philipp Kohlschreiber, 36, on Centre Court in Wednesday evening’s featured match, it’s one the World No. 1 won’t take lightly. They’ve faced each other 13 times and Djokovic leads the career head-to-head 11-3.

Last year, Djokovic played Kohlschreiber four times and won the last three (twice on clay, at Monte Carlo and Rome, and on grass at Wimbledon). However, it’s their last hard-court match, at the BNP Paribas Open last March, that Djokovic remembers best.

“I lost to him in straight sets in Indian Wells last year,” Djokovic recalled during his press conference after he beat Malek Jaziri of Tunisia, 6-1, 6-2, in Monday’s first round for his 14th straight win this season. “I am aware of what he’s capable of. He likes actually playing top players on a big stage. He has lots of experience. He’s very fit. He keeps on playing even at that age on a high level. I certainly will not underestimate him.”

The 80th-ranked Kohlschreiber advanced to play Djokovic after beating 132nd-ranked Egyptian wild card Mohamed Safwat, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, on Monday afternoon.

“As I said before, our last meeting I lost to him in straight sets on the hard courts (6-4, 6-4). I will prepare myself. I’m feeling good on the court,” Djokovic said.

Around the Aviation Club

Three other seeds headlined Tuesday’s play at the Aviation Club, including No. 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who faced Pablo Carreño Busta in his opening Dubai match. A 2019 finalist, Tsitsipas took Centre Court for the featured evening session match just two days after successfully defending his Open 13 Provence title in Marseille, bested Carreño Busta, 7-6 (1), 6-1, in one hour and 34 minutes by outpointing the Spaniard 79-54. He improved his 2020 win-loss record to 8-4 and has won 10 consecutive sets.

”Overall, I think I did pretty well. It’s a great joy for me to go out there and play in front of such an amazing crowd here in Dubai,” Tsitsipas said during his on-court interview. “I really enjoy playing on this court. I fought very hard (tonight); I pushed myself to the limit. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew I was going to have to suffer. I put myself into a mental state where it was all about fighting and giving 100 percent every single point.” 

Can Tsitsipas go one step further than last year, when he lost to Roger Federer in the Emirates final? “It’s something that I’m really wishing for this week,” Tsitsipas said. “I know I have to put a lot of action into it. I think I have to play really good tennis to get to the same place I was here last year. I know it’s not going to be easy this year – Novak Djokovic is on the other side of the draw – but I don’t want to think ahead too far. I have a lot of matches ahead of me.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Tsitsipas will face Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, who advanced over No. 30 Hubert Hurkacz from Poland, 6-2, 7-5. It will be the second meeting in five days between Tsitsipas and Bublik. The World No. 6 beat the Russian-born Kazakh 7-5, 6-3 in the Marseille semifinals last Saturday.

• No. 4 seed Fabio Fognini of Italy made his Dubai debut against No. 37 Daniel Evans from Great Britain, whom he was facing for the first time. It didn’t go the way Fognini envisioned and he was bounced in the opening round by the Briton, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, in two hours and 39 minutes. Evans fired 10 aces and won 71 percent of his first serves and, although he converted just six of 19 break points and was outscored 106-105 by the Italian, he prevailed by converting his sixth match point to improve to 9-4 this year.

“It’s difficult to play Fabio. He’s such a class player,” said Evans, who trailed 1-3 in the second set before rebounding. “(I am) just happy to come through really. It was a good battle. I didn’t actually get to play my game too much, but it was good.

“I felt like he was on top forever really. (I was) just hanging in. A good part of my game is hanging in, just staying in the match.”

Next, Evans will face No. 78 Pierre-Hughes Herbert of France, who lost only four points on his first serve en route to beating No. 48 Yoshihito Nishioka from Japan, 7-5, 6-2, in one hour and 18 minutes – just two days after Nishioka lost the Delray Beach Open final to Reilly Opelka in the United States on Sunday afternoon.

• No. 34 Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, who fancies a good slice of pizza, took a big bite out of the draw by defeating No. 5 seed and 2018 titlist Roberto Bautista Agut from Spain, 7-6 (2), 7-5 on the strength of his 13 aces and 44 winners. It was the first time that Struff had beaten Bautista Agut in four career head-to-head meetings. Next, Struff will face No. 29 Nikolaz Basilashvili of Georgia, who went the distance to beat 62nd-ranked Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis, 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-3, in two hours and 37 minutes.

“It was one of my best performance so far,” Struff said after his one hour and 52 minute win win on Centre Court. “I’m very pleased.”

• Other Tuesday winners: No. 96 Austrian qualifier Dennis Novak defeated No. 134 wild card Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India, 6-4, 6-3 and will next play No. 7 Karen Khachanov; No. 99 qualifier Yasutake Uchiyama of Japan beat No. 962 Lu Yen-Hsun of Taiwan, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, to advance against No. 3 seed Gaël Monfils; and No. 33 Filip Krajinovic of Serbia defeated Joao Sousa of Portugal, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, to set up a second-round meeting against No. 6 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia.

What they’re saying

• Benoit Paire on playing Marin Cilic: “It was not easy today. I was not feeling really good on court. Little bit sick two, three days. Really happy to win today and to fight until the end. Normally, when its one set, 5-3, I normally tank (give up). This time I tried until the end. It was good working. Really happy about the win.  … The only thing is when you play against Marin, he won Top 10, he won a US Open, he won a lot of big tournaments. He is not seeded here, and honestly he’s very good player. I knew it will be difficult to beat him today. But that’s what I did.”

• Stefanos Tsitsipas on his next opponent, Alexander Bublik: “(Bublik) is a tricky player. He does unexpected things on the court. I just need to be there, do my job the way I’m doing it so far. I’m doing great. I should continue doing the same, handle things the same way, be cautious and know when I have to put in the extra effort.”