French Open 2020: Rescheduled Grand Slam to witness colder conditions, retractable roof and much-smaller crowds
French Tennis Federation expected the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to subside by the rescheduled September date. But they face multitude of challenges ahead.
If the US Open presented a daunting challenge amid the coronavirus pandemic, Roland Garros has that plus more. When the French Tennis Federation (FFT) took the bold, and controversial, decision to shift the tournament from May-June to September-October, it had done so to hope the rising cases would be arrested by then. Or, maybe a vaccine. But neither have worked out in their favour.
If France was seeing an average of 300-plus new cases late May, the weekly average now stands at a jaw-dropping 10,000-plus cases.
Five male players were withdrawn from qualifying and another from the women's side. Damir Dzumhur, one of the players withdrawn, is taking legal action against the organisers after his coach Petar Popovic had supposedly tested positive. They both argue that Popovic had a 'false positive' considering he had tested positive earlier in the year and was "full of antibodies". It will be interesting how things proceed with the tournament as cases rise in the city.
Fans are back!
US Open was played without fans but as things have moved to Europe, they are back. Sparingly but that's something. Up to 1,000 spectators were allowed to watch the semi-finals and finals of the Italian Open. Hamburg has allowed 2,300 fans per day. Strasbourg has welcomed 2,500 fans. Roland Garros, meanwhile, has plans to bring in 1,000 fans a day - less than the initial 20,000, then 11,500 and then 5,000 announced.
"Today, we are at 5,000 people, which is very little in a 12-hectare site, which represents 15 football fields," tournament director Guy Forget told BFMTV earlier in the week. "In terms of safety protocols, we meet all the criteria, we have been constantly speaking with authorities."
"Today, it is more risky to go to a supermarket, to an amphitheater, and to take the metro. We hope we will be able to welcome fans to the French sporting event with the most international reach, by any measure," he went on to say.
Some players had expressed their apprehension with the initial 5,000 fans allowed.
“Here in Strasbourg there are too many fans,” said French player Alize Cornet.
“The fact that there is a crowd in the stands is not necessarily bad but these people are in the walkways with us, they ask for a lot of photos and autographs from the players and it’s hard to refuse.
“We are locked in a hotel, we are prevented from going out, we take the health protocol really seriously, but we meet people who are there en masse and who do not respect social distancing at all.
“What I want is that things are done better at Roland Garros because there will be more fans and more players so more risk.”
12-time Roland Garros winner Rafael Nadal said last week, "I don't know what's going on. I don't know what's the situation's going to look like in Roland Garros."
"Let's see how the virus evolves the next couple of weeks. Hopefully in a good way. Doesn't look like that, no? Let's see."
Another former champion in Simona Halep hopes for strict enforcement of distance between fans and those inside the bubble.
"I'm pretty sure that it's going to be very strict. We cannot be with the fans, we cannot be with the people that are not in the bubble, so I think they will be separate," said the 2018 winner.
For context, a record 5,20,000 fans walked through the gates at Roland Garros last year. This time? Less than 3 percent of that would attend the Parisian Grand Slam thereby significantly affecting the tournament's finances.
Weather conditions to play a role
Usually, when the cavalry moves to Paris, it is May-June and summer season with highs of 24 degrees celsius. Now, over the course of two weeks, the temperature isn't expected to go over 20 degrees celsius. More importantly, however, it will get cooler later in the day which impacts how the ball travels, how the courts play, and effectively the whole game.
Another part to consider is the rain. This time of the year sees more rain in Paris than May-June would. Player mobility and adaptability to conditions come into the picture here. Someone like Nadal, who is most effective in hot conditions, will find it tougher in chilly conditions. It does help that Court Philippe-Chatrier has a swanky new retractable roof to show off to help keep play going.
Roland Garros finally gets a roof (and floodlights)
The roof has come in at an investment of $55 million and takes Roland Garros at par with other Grand Slams to have a retractable roof. The roof will take 15 minutes to close and will come into play when there's rain.
Another innovation this year is the floodlights. 12 courts at Roland Garros have been fitted with floodlights (Court Philippe-Chatrier, Court Suzanne-Lenglen, Court Simonne-Mathieu, 4, 5, 7, 9-14) with eight coming into play and will be extended to all next year to enable night sessions. Roland Garros, thus, will join Australian Open and US Open with night sessions with Wimbledon being the exception.
With lights and roof, what will be interesting is how players adapt to both. Bear in mind this is not grass or hard courts, this is clay where balls pick up dirt and are relatively harder to spot.
'New balls please'
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) September 18, 2020
After eight years with Babolat, Roland Garros will move to Wilson tennis balls starting this year (five-year deal). By design, balls on clay pick up more dirt and undergo more wear and tear.
The role of the balls gets even more important this year due to colder weather conditions, erego heavier balls, which results in more effort on the part of the players.
“That will be the bigger difference. The Babolat were actually my favorite balls, they were nice and fast, perfect for my game, perfect for Nadal’s game too. The new balls will be slower, more open. That will certainly change the results a bit,” predicted newly-crowned US Open champion and two-time Roland Garros runner-up Dominic Thiem.
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