Why is the French Open going ahead with crowds in the middle of Europe’s second wave?

Australia World

The French Open tennis tournament starts tonight in Paris amid a worsening coronavirus crisis in France, where new cases of COVID-19 are peaking at around 16,000 a day.

Tournament organisers were hoping to stage the event with thousands of spectators but had their plans scuppered at the last minute, with the French Government limiting crowd numbers to 1,000 a day.

The tournament could still open a can of worms.

Here’s what they’re dealing with.

Isn’t the French Open usually held in May?

Yes, but they moved it and took a few people by surprise in the process.

The French Tennis Federation (FFT) set the tone for its handling of life during a pandemic back in March, when it announced it was moving the French Open from May to September without first discussing the move with the ATP or the WTA.

It also forgot to tell any of the tournaments it was about to squash including the Laver Cup and, ironically, the Wuhan Open in China.

Naomi Osaka summed up the tennis world’s response to the unilateral move, tweeting a simple, “Excusez moi?”

Loading

Organisers will take little comfort from the fact that the day the tournament was supposed to start, May 24, France recorded just 115 new cases of the virus.

Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20.

Why do they want to let crowds in to watch?

Put simply, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) wants life, in tennis terms at least, to get back to normal, and it needs the money.

The FFT relies on the French Open for around 80 per cent of its revenue.

The US Open earlier this month showed it is possible to hold a Grand Slam during a pandemic, albeit without a crowd and at a time when coronavirus cases were at their lowest level in months in New York.

Naomi Osaka speaks into a US Open microphone while wearing a mask with Breonna Taylor written on it.Naomi Osaka speaks into a US Open microphone while wearing a mask with Breonna Taylor written on it.
Naomi Osaka took out this year’s US Open, which was played without spectators.(AP: Frank Franklin II)

French Open officials were planning, as late as last week, to allow as many as 11,000 people a day to attend the tournament.

French police stepped in and kyboshed the plan, limiting spectators to 5,000 a day, all in the main stadium.

Tournament organisers faced a final blow to their plans when the French Prime Minister announced on Friday that the tournament would have to adhere to a new rule limiting gatherings to no more than 1,000 people.

Organisers have already sold thousands of tickets, and will now run a ballot each day to determine the lucky few who’ll be allowed through the gates each day.

Loading

The FFT director-general Jean-Francois Vilotte laid out his philosophy to the Roland Garros website last week.

“By setting an example with our tournament, we hope to prove that we can get the economy back on track, though it goes without saying that certain conditions and certain restrictions must be respected,” he said.

Effectively, they are willing to accept the risk of spreading the virus further as long as there is some benefit to the economy.

It’s a view that is certainly at odds with much of the rest of the world.

Ashleigh Barty holds the French Open trophy and smilesAshleigh Barty holds the French Open trophy and smiles
A delighted Ash Barty made her grand slam breakthrough at the French Open, but the Australian will not be in Paris this time round.(AP: Christophe Ena)

Are all the big names still playing?

No. Several of the game’s top players have already pulled out of the event, including Australian stars Ash Barty and Nick Kyrgios, who both cited the risks of playing during the pandemic as factors.

Novak Djokovic holds a trophy aloft while wearing a face mask.Novak Djokovic holds a trophy aloft while wearing a face mask.
Novak Djokovic, pictured celebrating his win in the Italian Open, has received criticism for playing during the pandemic.(Facebook: Novak Djokovic)

The absence of Kyrgios is not a major surprise, given his open criticism of some players, including world number one Novak Djokovic, for competing during the pandemic.

He also just thinks the tournament generally “sucks”.

Recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka will miss the tournament through injury, and Roger Federer has already brought his year to close while he recovers from knee surgery.

After earlier saying she would not travel to Paris if the tournament was held with a crowd, or if she had to share a hotel with other players, Serena Williams has committed to playing at Roland Garros as she continues her quest to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles.

French player Benoit Paire also takes his place in the tournament, despite claiming to have twice tested positive to coronavirus during this week’s ATP event in Hamburg.

How risky is it for the players?

The admission of fans — albeit only 1,000 a day — adds another layer of risk for the tournament.

Players competing at this week’s warm-up event in the French city of Strasbourg, where 2,500 fans a day were allowed in to watch, have already had a taste of the challenges holding a Grand Slam in a pandemic may pose.

“Here in Strasbourg, there are too many fans,” French player Alize Cornet told AFP.

“What I want is that things are done better at Roland Garros because there will be more fans and more players so more risk.”

Benoit Paire opens his mouth and plays a two-handed back hand shot wearing a dark blue polo shirtBenoit Paire opens his mouth and plays a two-handed back hand shot wearing a dark blue polo shirt
Frenchman Benoit Paire will be competing at Roland Garros, despite recently testing positive for COVID-19.(dpa via AP: Daniel Bockwoldt)

The safety initiatives at the tournament will be similar to those employed at the US Open: there’ll be no handshakes and no handling of towels by ballkids.

The players will each be tested on arrival at the event, followed by another test 72 hours later. They’ll then be tested every five days, as long as they remain in the tournament.

The players are also all confined to two official hotels, which means their social media accounts are full of the same happy snaps of the Eiffel Tower.

Loading

What happens if a player tests positive for coronavirus?

The short answer is that they’ll have to leave the tournament, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Under tournament protocol, a player will also be forced out of the event if they are deemed a close contact of someone who tests positive, whether it’s a fellow player or a coach.

Serena Williams wears a facemask while walking past an on-court hoarding with her name on itSerena Williams wears a facemask while walking past an on-court hoarding with her name on it
Serena Williams will be competing in Paris as she chases Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles.(AP: Frank Franklin II)

That’s what happened to former top 30 player Damir Dzumhur, who is now taking legal action against the tournament after he was denied a spot in the qualifying event because his coach tested positive.

He was one of six players barred from taking part in qualifying after either testing positive or being deemed a close contact.

Former top 10 player Fernando Verdasco was also booted out on the eve of the tournament after testing positive, despite twice testing negative at his previous event.

Loading

The Spaniard said he also had several independent tests taken after his disqualification and they came back negative.

Needless to say, he was not happy and described his treatment as an “outrage”.

At this rate, it’s almost inevitable that a player or a coach involved in the main draw will test positive, and that is a scenario that will open a massive can of worms for tournament organisers.

A positive test is indisputable, but deciding who is a close contact is subjective.

Rafael Nadal lifts the French Open trophy after beating Dominic Thiem in the final at Roland GarrosRafael Nadal lifts the French Open trophy after beating Dominic Thiem in the final at Roland Garros
Rafael Nadal, pictured at Roland Garros in 2018, already has 12 French Open trophies on his mantelpiece.(AP: Alessandra Tarantino)

Would tournament organisers really kick Rafael Nadal out of the tournament if a coach or hitting partner tests positive?

The most you can be guaranteed is that the French will handle things in their own way and if you don’t like it, too bad.