2017 Italian Open R2 Preview: Stan Wawrinka vs Benoit Paire

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Besties Stan Wawrinka and Benoit Paire lock horns for the second straight week as they meet in second round play at the Internazionali BNL D’Italia. Paire scored the upset of Wawrinka last week in Madrid 7-5, 4-6, 6-2.

(3) Stan Wawrinka vs Benoit Paire

Wawrinka is just 1-2 on clay this season. He made an early exit in Monte Carlo in his second round match via Pablo Cuevas and then in his opener last week in Madrid at the hands of Paire. Truth be told, Wawrinka doesn’t ever seem to need to win tournaments prior to Grand Slams to be part of the championship conversation, but his play has been spotty still since making the Indian Wells final. Perhaps the Swiss can write off last week’s loss due to the rainy conditions that caused the match to finish indoors. Perhaps he just didn’t perform that well, broken two times in the final set. Wawrinka was nonchalant in the build-up to Madrid last week, saying it was always tricky to play there and that you don’t always play your best tennis right away. He will be needing better this week in Rome.

For Paire, his win over Wawrinka was just his 6th career win against Top 10 competition. He’s 1-3 on the season against Top 10 players. He started the week in Rome with a straight forward dissection of Nicolas Mahut 6-3, 6-4. Paire won 81 percent of his first serve points, saving two of four break chances. He would convert four of eight against Mahut. Paire was broken first in each set, but managed to break back in both instances to get back on serve. Overall, it was a fairly solid performance for the Frenchman who has now won three of his last four on this surface.

Paire Turning The Tide

Paire has now won two of the last three match-ups with his chum Wawrinka. Paire ended a four match losing skid to Wawrinka last year in Marseille, when he beat him in three sets. Wawrinka would win in Rome in this exact spot a year ago in three and then Paire of course took the Madrid match in three. I’m not sure he’s particularly doing any one thing more or less to explain those wins. It looks like an overall product of Wawrinka not necessarily playing his best and Paire being able to raise his consistency level. Paire still gives Wawrinka too many looks at second serves with his traditionally low first serve percentage, but he’s been able to avoid trouble a bit better with some good bailout serves.

Paire sounded confident ahead of beating Stan last week, talking about how they often train together and how well he knows the Swiss’ game. It also helped that he had beaten Pablo Carreno Busta to start the week just after PCB won a clay court title in Estoril. His opening win against Mahut won’t inspire as much confidence, but it was still a good way to get going. It also gives the Frenchman “real time” conditions on the surface, whereas Wawrinka plays his first live match of the week against Paire on Wednesday.

When in Rome …

Rome traditionally has been an okay stop for Wawrinka on tour, but not one that generally yields grand results. His best finish was making the final in 20008, where Novak Djokovic bested him in three. Since then, he’s only made it past the third round twice. The best run in that strecth came in 2015 when he lost to Roger Federer in the semifinals. Normally, he’s been shown the door in the third round. That has happened four of the past six years.

Paire is playing in just his third main draw at this event. His debut in 2013 was outstanding as he made the semifinals, losing to Roger Federer. He missed out through qualifying in 2015. Last year, the Frenchman lost his second round match to Wawrinka after getting a win via retirement of Bernard Tomic in round one. He’s obviously the lesser experienced player at this tournament, but will by no means feel outmatched based on recent results against his Swiss counterpart.

Inside the War Room

The game plan for these two isn’t all that different. Both need to serve well to optimize their overall chances to win. Wawrinka does get into ruts where his serve isn’t power packed. It usually starts with his first serve consistency. That’s usually the place where Paire has the most trouble of his own. He’s traditionally been poor in that category. This season, Paire is getting 51 percent of his first serves in play. That is right in line with his career average, both though are troublesome numbers for players at this level.

That means far too many second serves are routinely being put in play by Paire and like most players, the second serve isn’t as good a weapon. That in itself explains a large part of his tournament to tournament struggles. His first serve percentage in Madrid was a majestic 60 percent, while his Marseille number was 49 percent. He doesn’t necessarily have to hit above 50 percent, but it’s a massive help when he does.

Off the ground, both have beautiful backhands. Wawrinka has the glorious one hander and Paire possesses what can be a sometimes crippling two hander. Both can use the backhand as their major weapon in matches, capable of winners from all points on the court. The forehand often is the decisive factor in matches for these two. Wawrinka has improved his over the years to the point that it is a real factor in matches, when he is stroking it with consistency. Paire? Not so much. His forehand is less consistent, but still not to be underestimated.

Paire will need to be weary of letting Wawrinka find a comfort zone early with his backhand. When Stan is able to tee off on that shot, his entire game seems to fall into rhythm. To keep Wawrinka off point, he’ll need to keep from letting the Swiss set up shop along the baseline in the middle of the court. That’s prime real estate for the old grip it and rip it that has made “The Stanimal” a dangerous beast.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

It’s definitely difficult to beat the same player two times in successive weeks and even more so, when it’s a player the caliber of Wawrinka. Yes, there is the worry of “Non-Slam” Stan again showing up in Rome, where his effort level may not be the fullest. We’ve seen that time and time again when he’s not playing in Grand Slams. It’s just a lack of mental focus and it happens to a lot of players, not just Wawrinka. Still, when you’re #3 in the world – people expect you to be locked and loaded every week.

Focus should not be an issue for Wawrinka after losing to Paire in Madrid. If it is, then he’s got bigger problems ahead of the French Open. For Paire, this is a spot where you can see anything. He could be happy that he beat him last week, roll over and play dead if he gets down early … or he could step up to the plate and go toe-to-toe with him again. That’s the danger both of these guys possess. The game to beat any player on any given day and also the mental focus of a first grader at any given moment.

For Wawrinka, those first grade moments don’t happen much in Slams, but they do occur outside that big stage. For Paire? I’ve used the term #FrenchBrain quite a bit in reference to how some of this generation’s more talented French players seem to ride the roller coaster through their matches with inexplicable momentum changes from set to set. With last week’s loss still fresh for Wawrinka, I think he should pull it together and win in the end. It may not be pretty or it may be a total obliteration. That’s the guess work in calling a result against Paire.

Let’s say Paire can at least take a set again though with his game pretty well tuned up at the moment, but still iffy to drop off at any time when the #FrenchBrain gets in the way.

Prediction: Wawrinka wins in three sets

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