New for this pandemic French Open: Fall weather and lights
By Christopher Clarey
The official poster for the 2020 French Open shows a view of a sunlit clay court through a dense ring of green leaves.
But that poster was commissioned long before the start of this year’s tournament was postponed from May to September because of the coronavirus pandemic.
If it were being painted for the French Open’s new dates, falling red and yellow leaves would be more appropriate.
“The trees are shedding,” said Sven Groeneveld, a veteran coach. “On court you have plenty.”
Roland Garros, synonymous with Paris in the spring, has turned autumnal this year. Put away your Panama hats and bring on your pumpkin-spiced lattes.
“So, so cold,” said Rafael Nadal, who is usually the one sending shivers through the draw.
Nadal was speaking on Friday after his latest practice session in temperatures in the 50s that he termed “a little bit extreme” for an outdoor tournament.
“Conditions here probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different facts,” Nadal said.
Nadal, it should be noted, has made a career out of downplaying his chances just about everywhere, including the French Open, where he has won a mind-boggling 12 singles titles.
That is — no surprise — a record, and he remains the oddsmakers’ favorite to extend it to 13 this year despite the presence of No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Dominic Thiem, the 2020 U.S. Open winner. Both are phenomenal clay-court players themselves.
“Clay is Rafa’s domain,” said Paul Annacone, a former coach of Roger Federer who is now working with the American Taylor Fritz. “I will be shocked if Rafa is not holding the trophy on Sunday, Oct. 11.”
Yet it remains true that this is a French Open like no other, and that Nadal is not only a born competitor but also a creature of habit. Luckily, there is no ban on lining up his water bottles or sweeping the lines with the soles of his sneakers.
“He does like his routines,” said James Blake, the former American star who was 3-4 against Nadal and is now an ESPN analyst. “I know they are limiting the size of the teams, and he’s used to the same team in the same restaurant doing the same things. You wonder if any of that will throw him off.”
This is not the first time a major tennis event has been played at Roland Garros in the autumn. France played Davis Cup matches there in 1981 versus Japan, in 2002 against the United States and in 2014 against the Czech Republic. The French women lost to Russia in the 2005 Fed Cup final at Roland Garros with 15,000 people in the stands.
But none of those events ended in mid-October, and none of them had to deal with the coronavirus, which is on the rise again in France and in the Paris region. The second wave forced organizers to scale back their grand plans for a nearly full house to a meager 1,000 spectators per day on the entire grounds.
“That represents the equivalent of 120 square meters per person, which is 30 times more than the normal requirement,” said Bernard Giudicelli, the president of the French Tennis Federation, upset by the government-mandated reductions.
A happier change is the new retractable roof over the main Philippe Chatrier Court, which will allow play to continue on at least one court if the forecast of frequent rain for Week 1 turns out to be correct.
The French Open is the last of the four Grand Slam tournaments to have a roofed stadium, and the others — Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open — all have at least two.
The French Open was a laggard in part because tennis can be played on its clay-court surface in light rain and in part because of legal disputes that delayed the modernization of the stadium by several years.
“We were behind, but the whole process took so long,” said Guy Forget, the French Open tournament director. “But finally we have it, and we will probably have another one a few years down the road.”
The structure is more canopy than roof. It covers the court but leaves a gap for air circulation rather than creating a true indoor environment. If it is rainy and chilly outside, it will be dry but still chilly on the court with the canopy closed.
The Chatrier court and the 11 other courts at Roland Garros also have been equipped with lights for the first time, which will allow play to continue after dark. There are no U.S. Open-style night sessions on the schedule, at least not this year, but matches that begin on one of the lighted courts will be played to their completion instead of being stopped and resumed the following day.
The lights were set to be installed on the main show courts even before the pandemic, but they should play an essential role with the move to the autumn.
With earlier nightfall comes cooler temperatures, which generally make for heavier, lower-bouncing conditions on clay. That is not considered ideal weather for Nadal because it keeps his whipping topspin forehand from doing maximum damage. But though the weather forecast for Week 1 is gloomy, there can also be clear, warmer days in late September and early October in Paris that would bring livelier conditions.
But Nadal, who has won clay-court titles in all kinds of weather, also expressed concern on Friday about the new brand of ball being used at the tournament this year: Wilson instead of Babolat, which is one of Nadal’s sponsors. Nadal said the new balls were “slow” and “heavy.”
“But this year is what we have,” he said. “I am just staying positive with this. I know we are going to have to play with this ball, so I need to find the best feelings possible with these conditions.”