Dubai 2017: Roger Federer races past Benoit Paire to spearhead a day of golden oldies
Roger Federer reaches the last 16 of the Dubai Duty Free Championships by beating Benoit Paire in straight sets
To say Benoit Paire is unpredictable is an understatement. At times brilliant, he can also then turn in error-riddled matches. He can combine power and flair but play with wayward and frustrating abandon.
In his defence, Paire suffered early injury problems just as he was rising through the tour. In 2013, the Frenchman improved his year-end ranking for a sixth year in a row, finishing in top 30. Then in 2014 he finished outside the top 100 for first time since 2010 after a left knee injury blighted his season: He had surgery the same year.
Paire then rose nearly 100 places to end 2015 at a career-high 19, yet a year later, he was back at 47 after no fewer than 17 first-round losses during 2016—and that theme has continued this year with two first-round losses sandwiched between two semi-finals.
He had never played in Dubai before so the question was, which Paire would show up in his opening match? It would have to be the focused, fast and creative one if he was to progress for he played the seven-time champion Roger Federer, and if the reputation of the Swiss was not enough—a 47-5 record at this tournament—the 0-3 head-to-head might be. Paire was yet to win a set.
Federer played down his chances this year, claiming that he was not back to full power, and untested by back-to-back matches, since his break from tour last summer. Lest his opponent be lulled by that, Federer had stormed to the Australian Open title on his return just a month ago—as the Swiss admitted:
“I know the first round is tough, and I don’t see myself as the favourite here [in Dubai], even though I have a great track record. It all starts from zero here. Yes, I got some confidence in Australia but I did have a big break, and conditions are a bit different here. It’s still fast, so the margins are small: Have to take it one at a time.”
Paire is one of the few players who keeps up a faster pace both through and between points than Federer, and the match started at a gallop. Federer found himself the victim of some of Paire’s exciting shot-making, now a drop, now a lob, and repeat. Federer was up to it, but even the calm Swiss was breathing heavily and this was just the first game.
But in the fourth game, Federer got the first break, saved three break-back points, and led, 4-1. But in a vain attempt to pick a Federer drop shot, Paire had tweaked an ankle and needed a medical time out at the change of ends.
The air was becoming distinctly chilly, and Federer donned his jacket and bounced around to keep warm. On resumption, he quickly reeled off two more games for the set, 6-1, in a scant 27 minutes.
It was more of the same in the second set, played at a frantic pace, but Paire was becoming more and more frustrated at his errors and by two love holds from Federer. With a break to love in the fifth game, and the French racket went flying, and when Paire failed to take advantage of deuces in the next, it flew again to earn a warning from the umpire.
Paire had deuce again on Federer’s next serve, but there was, in the end, no way through as Federer attacked the net with increasing urgency. The Swiss broke on match point, 6-3: He had won his 48th Dubai match in just 54 minutes.
The Swiss afterwards had words for Paire, and also about how tricky it can be to play someone going for their shots after picking up an injury.
“I mean, it’s never easy, because you never know how severe it is. It’s a fast court. He’s a big shot-maker, so that always lends itself to being dangerous. But I think over the years I have played many opponents this way, and you just do your thing, try to make it difficult for him, try to stay aggressive yourself so you don’t get lured into just making shots.
“I think I did well, and by the time maybe he got more comfortable, he was already down a set and a break. From then it’s a long way back… I’m very happy with this first round, but of course I hope for him it’s nothing serious.”
It was perhaps the right result for the tournament, too, for there was a cake-cutting ceremony on court after the match to mark the 25th anniversary of event, and there was no-one more appropriate to help wield the knife than the seven-time champion.
It was, all in all, a good day for all the mature players in the Dubai draw—and remarkably, this year’s line-up features more over-30s than under-30s, 17 of them.
The evergreen Philipp Kohlschreiber, 33, got the better of another veteran, Gilles Muller, in the first match, needing one break in the first set—some achievement by the 5ft10ins German over the huge-serving 6ft4in man from Luxembourg. Even more impressive, Kohlschreiber then pounded through the tie-break for the loss of just one point to advance, 6-4, 7-6(1).
The slender German was quick to counter the statistic that stated he had been ranked between 16 and 40 for over 10 years: “Yes, I would say as a German I am very consistent! I would even, maybe, like to improve!”
At the other end of the draw, 30-year-old Marcel Granollers beat the much younger 6ft6ins Czech, Jiri Vesely in just 66 minutes, 6-3, 6-2. And another rising star of the #NextGen, the No50 ranked 6ft6ins Karen Khachanov, also went out to the big wild card, No15 Roberto Bautista Agut, 6-1, 7-6(4).
Last to complete the opening day’s play was the No4 seed Gael Monfils, playing Egyptian wild card Mohamed Safwat who, understandably, got plenty of vocal support from this crowd. But the 30-year-old Monfils, though initially tested, was too good. He advanced 6-4, 6-3.
It so happens that Federer could face the 34-year-old two-time former finalist, Mikhail Youzhny in the next round, but the Russian first plays Evgeny Donskoy tomorrow.