A hotel shows the French Open is another sports bubble that isn’t

By Karen Crouse

The lobby was nearly empty at the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel when American Coco Gauff breezed through the front door with her parents Sunday after her first-round victory at the French Open. It was approaching 10 p.m., the witching hour when the hotel’s restaurant, like those throughout the city, is required to close in compliance with restrictions imposed because of the countrywide rise in coronavirus cases.

Situated at the base of the Eiffel Tower, near the Seine, the hotel has become for this Grand Slam tournament part of what organizers call its bubble, a term that has been casually embraced throughout sports for the exceedingly difficult goal of a controlled environment meant to prevent the spread of the virus. Yet unlike during the recent U.S. Open in New York, the tennis biosphere in Paris is also welcoming outsiders — people who did not have to be tested for the virus upon arrival and who will not need to take tests or follow any of the tournament’s protocols during their stay.

At the Pullman, nearly half of the 430 rooms, with nightly rates starting at $335, have been made available to guests like the American Airlines captain who shared air and space with the players before piloting a Boeing 777 back to Dallas on Monday. Over the weekend, the outside guests included this reporter, who checked in for one night to observe how the protocol in place to protect the players worked.

What I found was a mixed bag. Security guards patrolled the lobby to keep traffic flowing away from players, and segregated dining areas were clearly defined and defended. The protection sagged as soon as I entered the cramped elevators, which I shared with players and rode to and from my assigned room. It was situated on the same floor as the players’ lounge, where I crossed paths with a few stragglers departing after closing time.

For those who oversee tennis, golf and other college and professional sports entities, the protective plans designed to satisfy local health officials often look very different when put into practice.

“It’s not a bubble,” contended American Sam Querrey, who said a more accurate term would be “a controlled environment.”

To create the perfect impermeable pod, he added, would require a megaresort large enough to house players, support staff, tournament officials and hotel staff — everybody likely to come in contact with anybody whose office for the next two weeks is Roland Garros.

“So it’s actually impossible, I think, to make a true, 100 percent bubble where no one can come in and out,” Querrey said after his first-round loss Tuesday to Andrey Rublev.

It is certainly the case here, where the commingling of players whose presence is predicated on passing multiple virus tests with potentially infected members of the public in a virus hot spot gives new meaning to the Saturday night mixer.

Sunday at the Pullman might have been serene, but Britain’s top-ranked player, Dan Evans, was discomfited by what he observed the day before in one of the busier sections of the city.

“There was a lot of people in our hotel,” he said after his five-set loss to Kei Nishikori in the opening round. “For me, that’s not what I want to see in this situation, personally. If we’re not allowed to leave, then we shouldn’t be seeing the public in the hotel.”

Instead of consensus, leaders in tennis have conflicting agendas. Given that the French Open is its main source of funding, the French Tennis Federation was desperate to hold the event, to collect the broadcast rights revenue and salvage some ticket sales.

The federation negotiated a deal with the Pullman, as well as a second hotel nearby, to house players and their support staff. But it chose not to shoulder the cost of reserving all of the rooms to assure a Tupperware-tight perimeter.

Given that the Pullman has struggled to fill more than 60 rooms on an average nightly basis since its June reopening, management had no choice, a hotel spokesman explained, but to continue taking reservations during the French Open. To accommodate everyone, extra measures, such as the different dining areas, have been instituted to separate the players from the others like cottons and wools in the wash.

There is no such division for the hotel employees, including the person on the breakfast shift in the public restaurant who was serving guests from outside the tennis bubble a day after waiting on Rafael Nadal in the players’ separate dining area a floor below. Nadal, the defending men’s champion, looms large in the lobby, where an enormous video screen loops highlights from last year’s men’s and women’s finals.

To walk into the lobby as a scene flashes on the screen of Nadal surrounded by admirers in a tight Philippe-Chatrier corridor with ball kids squeezed in on either side of him is to be hit with the reality of how far this year’s tournament has strayed from normal.

“It’s not easy to be stuck in the bubble,” the Canadian Vasek Pospisil said, adding: “You can’t even get fresh air. But it is what it is.”

If Gauff was famished Sunday night after her first-round upset of Johanna Konta, she could have grabbed a late-night snack at the players-only dining area, but she could not have gained access to any of the popular spots that serve the crepes and croissants that feed her love of Paris, since that would have meant mingling with those outside the bubble.

The restrictions make sense on paper, but the moment players interact with guests who have not been tested — or in my case, who were tested but were free to stray into potential hot spots across the city — the integrity of the environment is compromised.

Similar circumstances play out in the tournament’s media setup, as players sit for interviews on tight sets with broadcasters that have paid millions to televise the tournament but yet do not socially distance or wear masks while they talk.

The players aren’t blind. They can see the gaps in the French federation’s virus defense.

“I’m a little bit nervous about the health situation,” said the former women’s world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, a two-time major winner.

Azarenka stayed at a private house during the U.S. Open and paid for security to monitor her movements to ensure that she honored the quarantine when she was not practicing or playing. So did Serena Williams, another former world No. 1, whose plans to avoid the hotel scene in Paris by staying at an apartment that she owns in the city were thwarted by French officials. Other players who live in Paris were also forced to stay in one of the hotels to play.

Like Britain’s Evans, Williams failed to see the logic in not allowing the players out of the bubble while people who had not been tested for the virus were essentially being let in.

She may not have agreed with the mandate, but the alternative was even less appealing: to pass up a major she has won three times when she is one year from age 40 and one title from Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles championships.

“I guess it’s a must,” said Williams, who added that she has created her own “personal bubble” and is doing everything she can think of to make it impenetrable.

“It definitely beats staying at home,” she said.

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