Coronavirus pandemic: Roland Garros’ decision to reschedule claycourt Major smacks of miscommunication and short-sightedness

What are the rules of the game of one-upmanship? There aren’t any, which is precisely what makes it so fun. And maybe the Roland Garros tournament organisers were looking for just that – fun – when they unilaterally announced on Tuesday that the claycourt Major would be postponed by a good four months.

 Coronavirus pandemic: Roland Garros’ decision to reschedule claycourt Major smacks of miscommunication and short-sightedness

Representational image. AP

“The current confinement measures have made it impossible for us to continue with the dates originally planned,” they said through a statement.

“The whole world is affected by the public health crisis connected with COVID-19. In order to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved in organising the tournament, the French Tennis Federation has made the decision to hold the 2020 edition of Roland-Garros from 20 September to 4 October 2020.”

On the face of it, this seems like an efficient way to alleviate the pitfalls of a global crisis. Most had expected Roland Garros to be cancelled altogether this year, and had started preparing for a clay-less 2020. But by finding an alternative time slot for the beloved tournament, the organisers have provided some much-needed cheer to a sports-starved populace; no fan would be unhappy at knowing that there is going to be at least one Slam to watch the rest of the year.

The French Tennis Federation, of course, wasted no time in patting themselves on the back for what they believe was a “brave yet difficult decision”. President Bernard Giudicelli added this carefully worded comment in the official statement: “We are acting responsibly, and must work together in the fight to ensure everybody’s health and safety.”

Was the phrase ‘work together’ deliberately placed in conjunction with ‘health and safety’ to pre-empt the inevitable backlash? Because as it transpired later in the day, Roland Garros certainly didn’t ‘work together’ with the other tennis bodies – or even the players – before arriving at a resolution that protected their own interests more than anything else.

An event as big as Roland Garros doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The ATP and WTA calendars are built around the Majors, which means a slight change in any of those four has a cascading effect on the entire tennis world. And postponing by four months is anything but a small change, so such a decision should ideally be taken only after extensive discussions with all the major governing bodies.

But the French federation clearly thought otherwise, if the blindsided responses to their announcement are anything to go by.

Wimbledon was the first to react, putting out a statement that didn’t reference Roland Garros directly but left nobody in doubt that their hand had been forced. “While we continue to plan for The Championships at this time, it remains a continuously evolving situation,” the Chief Executive of the AELTC said.

In other words: They weren’t thinking of postponing or cancelling yet, so the other tournaments scheduled in the summer and fall had no reason to worry.

The ITF had been kept in the dark too, which is particularly surprising given that the organization practically runs all the four Slams. “I did not know,” ITF Board of Directors member Rene Stammbach said. “We’ve discussed several scenarios in the past few weeks, but changing the date at Roland Garros hasn’t been one of them. I am very surprised and I don’t know if this makes sense.”

The response from the US Open was keenly anticipated by everyone, and for good reason. The rescheduling means there will be just a week’s gap between Roland Garros and the New York Major, and many believed that some kind of understanding had been reached between the two tournaments. Maybe the US Open would be brought forward, or perhaps postponed?

As it turns out, none of that was discussed. “The USTA is continuing to plan for the US Open and is not at this time implementing any changes to the schedule,” the official statement read. But they went a step further, adding a far-from-subtle comment that implied they hadn’t been consulted by Roland Garros before the announcement.

“At a time when the world is coming together, we recognise that such a decision should not be made unilaterally, and therefore the USTA would only do so in full consultation with the other Grand Slam tournaments, the WTA and ATP, the ITF and our partners, including the Laver Cup.”

That’s some first-rate shade-throwing right there. Were they paying too much attention to Daniil Medvedev and his passive-aggressive antics last year?

The Laver Cup didn’t want to be left behind amid all this jousting, so they put out their own statement later in the day. “This announcement came as a surprise to us and our partners – Tennis Australia, the USTA and the ATP,” they revealed. “At this time, we want our fans, sponsors, broadcasters, staff, volunteers, players and the great city of Boston to know that we intend to hold Laver Cup 2020 as currently scheduled.”

‘As currently scheduled’ means it will be held between 25 and 27 September. You read that right; as things stand, Roger Federer’s star-studded event will take place bang in the middle of the rescheduled Roland Garros. Do the Laver Cup organisers know something we don’t? How could they possibly hope for players to turn up at a glorified exhibition in Boston, at the same time that a Slam is underway in Paris?

There are many more questions than answers right now, so it’s not a surprise that the people most affected by the change – the players – are up in arms. While some like Rafael Nadal were reportedly informed about the decision in advance, most of the others had no clue before the announcement. And they made their annoyance very clear on social media.

Jamie Murray made a sarcastic remark about ‘working together’, Vasek Pospisil first called it ‘madness’ before deleting his tweet and replacing it with one insinuating that Roland Garros was ‘selfish and arrogant’, and Naomi Osaka simply responded with an aghast “Excuse me?”. Stan Wawrinka and Diego Schwartzman also mentioned how they found out only after the official statement, but Noah Rubin possibly had the most elaborate and measured take on the issue.

“Four biggest events are privately owned, can do what they please. Even though we can do much better, to get organizers, officials, managers and players in same room seems impossible and insurmountable,” he said.

The powers that be really do need better communication among themselves; to get in the ‘same room’, as Rubin said. Roland Garros’ rescheduling may have brought joy to all those hoping for at least some claycourt tennis this year, but the tournament’s rest-of-the-community-be-damned approach has the potential to cause a lot of upheaval.

The players will now have a break of just one week after the US Open, during which time they will have to fly halfway across the globe, switch their hardcourt shoes for claycourt ones, and hope that their body doesn’t break down. We’ve been complaining about the grueling tennis schedule for years now, and suddenly we have a borderline inhuman one on our hands.

The shorter daylight hours in fall (and therefore a more crammed daily schedule) could also be a problem, as could the rain and lower temperatures. That’s not to mention a potential clash with the Olympics if they were to be postponed; have the tennis officials already decided to disregard the Tokyo Games?

But while we’re talking about the alien conditions and clashing schedules, the elephant in the room still remains as large as ever. The coronavirus outbreak is showing no signs of slowing down, so it is anybody’s guess whether organizing sports events will even be possible in September (or beyond).

In such a scenario, wouldn’t it have made more sense for Roland Garros to merely announce the postponement of the tournament, without fixing any specific dates?

Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, but self-centered decisions hardly qualify as extraordinary. At this point, it is hard not to think that Roland Garros were just trying to flex their muscle by unilaterally rescheduling their tournament to September. And the game of one-upmanship that the move has prompted – with the US Open and Laver Cup, among others – is a sorry indictment of their short-sightedness.

Updated Date: Mar 18, 2020 19:38:13 IST

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