The fallout from the French Tennis Federation’s decision to delay the start of this year’s French Open continued as American Steve Johnson became the latest player to join the chorus of condemnation. The second Grand Slam of the year was due to start on 23 May but has now been postponed by a week to 30 May, in the hope of being allowed to admit fans into the tournament.
However, the decision will cause scheduling havoc for the grass-court season, which was due to begin straight after the event and has greatly angered the players.
In an excoriating social media post, Johnson accused the tournament organisers of disrespecting tennis: ‘Roland Garros once again unilaterally decides to change the date of their event, disrupting the calendar to accommodate themselves without respect for the consequences and impact it has on the rest of tennis.’
Earlier, the Australian Open finalist, Daniil Medvedev, had called the decision ‘ridiculous’ and wondered how the virus was going to ‘disappear in a week in Paris.’ Alize Cornet, the French world No. 59, accused the organisers of being ‘selfish’ and branded the French sports minister, Roxana Maracineau, a disaster. Meanwhile, Canadian Milos Raonic was rightly annoyed that no one had bothered to tell the players: ‘Crazy to learn about this from Twitter. This greatly impacts the players and we are given no heads up. Even some communication shortly before the rest of the world would be nice.’
The world number 1, Novak Djokovic, was more diplomatic in his response, perhaps due to his role as chief instigator of the newly formed players’ association (PTPA), but even he agreed the rescheduling would be a ‘challenge’ for the ATP.
The players’ anger and frustration is unsurprising since this is the second year in a row that the French Open has been unceremoniously rescheduled due to COVID-19. Last year, the organisers drew the ire of the tennis world for controversially moving the event from its usual June date to late September-October without any consultation process. At least this time their decision appears to have the backing of the other Grand Slams and the ATP/WTA tours, though with seemingly no thought for the grass-court tournaments that will be affected.
The ATP 250 Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, the combined ATP/WTA 250 Libema Open in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Holland, and the WTA 250 Nottingham Open are all due to take place during what will now be the second week of the French Open. With the pre-Wimbledon grass-court season already pitifully short at just three weeks (having been belatedly extended by a week from 2015 onwards) and now curtailed once more to its original two weeks, there is no room for manoeuvre, and these lesser tournaments face the prospect of having a diminished field and interest or being forced to reschedule or even cancel altogether.
Clearly, the potential financial benefit of having paying spectators at a Grand Slam has outweighed any consideration for the players, or for the practical and financial difficulties that await the lower tier grass court tournaments.
Nevertheless, even with this inconvenient re-jigging of the tournament start date, there is no guarantee that Paris will be sufficiently COVID-free by the time the French Open starts for the French government to relax their rules on spectator entry to sporting events.
It should also be noted that even if the tournament starts with fans, it may not carry on with fans. If cases arise again, the fans may have to be locked out again, as happened at the Australian Open earlier this year, where disgruntled fans were ejected in the middle of matches as Melbourne went into lockdown.
As has been unequivocally evident this last year, sport is nothing without fans. Therefore, it is understandable that the French Open organisers should want to have fans creating an exciting atmosphere for one of the major events in the tennis calendar. But the question for the sport’s governing bodies is whether the needs of an individual Grand Slam should be allowed to supersede the best interests of the players, and of the sport itself.