The ASB Classic is guaranteed its first French champion as Benoit Paire takes on younger compatriot Ugo Humbert for the title in Auckland.
Benoit Paire vs Ugo Humbert is live from Auckland on Saturday 18 January at 2.30pm local/1.30am GMT
Paire, nine years Humbert’s senior at 30, is into his fourth ATP Tour final in the past 12 months after reaching a trio of them in 2019, winning titles on clay in Lyon (d. Felix Auger-Aliassime) and Marrakech (d. Pablo Andujar) and finishing runner-up on hard courts at the Winston-Salem Open to Hubert Hurkacz, on whom he got revenge in the semifinals in Auckland.
Paire played a tremendously heavy schedule in 2019, competing almost every week of the season and contesting 75 matches in total, winning 42 of them. In addition to the three finals mentioned above, he made the fourth rounds of the French Open and Wimbledon and made the final of the Marbella Challenger. Unsurprisingly, he lost steam towards the end of the year, losing seven of the last nine matches he played in 2019 and ending the season with a 3-6, 3-6 defeat to Novak Djokovic at the Davis Cup Finals.
Now ranked world no. 24, Paire began his season by going 2-1 at the ATP Cup, beating Nicolas Jarry of Chile and Dusan Lajovic of Serbia but losing to Kevin Anderson of South Africa. He has been on battling form at the ASB Classic, winning each of the four matches he’s contested to reach the final in three sets, although none of them have lasted as long as two hours: He dropped the second set against wildcard Jannik Sinner, the Next Gen ATP Finals champion in 2019 and came back from a set down against qualifier Thiago Monteiro and Australia’s John Millman.
In the semifinals, Paire snapped the six-match winning streak of Hurkacz, who came into the clash on superb form after beating Diego Schwartzman, Dominic Thiem and Borna Coric at the ATP Cup and reaching the final four in Auckland. Paire took the first set 6-4 but Hurkacz surged back to level, claiming the second set in a superb tie-break in which the Pole showcased his athleticism in some all-court points. It was impressive that Paire was able to regroup and dominate the decider for a 6-4, 6-7(1), 6-2 victory.
‘It was not easy. Not everything was perfect, but against Hubert it is never easy.
‘He is a very good player and a tough opponent, so I hope tomorrow will be better and I hope to enjoy [the final].’
Paire still has a 3-5 record in finals, but considering it was 1-4 before 2019, it’s starting to look a lot more healthy for the mercurial Frenchman, who could well be poised to claim his first hard-court title in Auckland.
In contrast, this is the first ATP Tour final of 21-year-old Ugo Humbert’s career. The younger man broke into the top 100 in 2018 after a stellar season saw him win three Futures titles and reach an impressive six Challenger titles, winning three of them. The 2019 season saw him break into the top 50, rising to a career-high world no. 46 in July after picking up a fourth Challenger title in Cherbourg in February, making a first ATP Tour semifinal in Marseille and then impressing on grass, where the left-hander reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon after wins over Gael Monfils and Felix Auger-Aliassime and, after losing to Djokovic in straight sets, reaching a second ATP Tour semifinal in Newport.
By the end of 2019, Humbert had picked up two more Challenger titles and made a third ATP Tour semifinal in Antwerp, where he got the third and fourth wins over top-20 opponents of his season before falling to Andy Murray.
Humbert started his season at the Bendigo Challenger, where he was the top seed but lost in the second round to Denis Kudla. In contrast to Paire, Humbert has dropped just one set in Auckland, and that was in the first round against Casper Ruud of Norway (another very impressive young player). Since then, the 21-year-old has been on a tear, beating former French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato before recording back-to-back wins over top-20 opponents against world no. 13 Denis Shapovalov and world no. 20 John Isner.
Humbert’s 7-6(5), 6-4 victory over the two-time ASB Classic champion was absolutely clinical, with the left-hander winning every single point behind his first serve and only losing six behind his second, of which three were double faults. Admittedly Isner is not the world’s greatest returner, but that’s exactly the kind of precision performance which it takes to beat the big-serving American. About the only thing Humbert could have done better was convert break points, with Isner saving six of the seven he faced, but Humbert did well not to get discouraged and altogether he turned in an extremely satisfying performance.
‘I am really happy about this win. It was a great match. I returned very well and I played good [on the] key points. I am really, really happy to reach my first final.’
This will be the second meeting between Paire and Humbert, with the older man winning 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 in Winston-Salem last year. Paire has a big advantage when it comes to experience, playing as he is in his ninth ATP Tour final, while this is Humbert’s first; on the other hand, the big-serving left-handed Humbert has been on a real tear in Auckland, serving so impressively, that I think his chances of claiming a maiden title and becoming the ASB Classic’s first French champion are excellent.