PARIS: The delayed French Open starts on Sunday with an ever-shrinking number of spectators allowed at Roland Garros, the players facing tight restrictions and bad weather threatening to wreak havoc during the fortnight.
Organisers were hoping to welcome up to 20,000 fans a day into the grounds but that number was reduced to 11,500, then 5,000 and eventually 1,000 as the French government intervened amid a resurgence of coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in the country.
At the recent US Open, players and guests had to pass two Covid-19 nasal swab tests 48 hours apart after their arrival in New York, and the tournament did not allow any fans on site.
In Paris, players will also face tough restrictions with organisers crossing fingers that the two-week Grand Slam tournament can be completed just as the number of daily coronavirus cases in France reached a new high of 16,096 on Thursday.
All participants will be parked in two different hotels with no possibility of renting private accommodation. They will only be allowed out in order to play their matches at Roland Garros or for practice sessions at the neighbouring Jean Bouin Stadium.
Players and their guests need to provide a negative Covid-19 test to enter the draw, a rule which has already prevented six players from competing in the qualifiers.
Bosnian Damir Dzumhur said he would take legal action against the French tennis federation after being barred from the tournament following his coach’s positive test.
This year marks the first time the main Philippe Chatrier court is equipped with a retractable roof, which will allow organisers to schedule late matches.
This option could be vital for a tournament postponed from its initial late spring slot to the autumn, when days are shorter and rain spells longer.
While 12 courts will be equipped with floodlighting, which will allow play to continue later into the evening, rain is forecast for six of the first eight days of the two-week tournament when the schedule is at its most crowded — just one covered court might not be enough to stay on schedule.
Yet at least some fans will be able to cheer on the players.
“I think having a few people, just put in 1,000 people and they will be louder than they’ve ever been before so 1,000 might sound like 10,000,” ex-French Open champion Mats Wilander said. “So I think it’s great the fans are back. I have no idea if it’s a smart move.”
Every year but three since 2005 the French Open has followed a familiar and straightforward script. Twelve times the story has ended with Nadal clamping his teeth around La Coupe des Mousquetaires and in 2008, 2010 and 2017 he romped through the fortnight without the loss of a set.
His win loss record stands at 93-2 and he has earned $22 million at the French Open alone.
The cool days of late September, with damp courts expected, will level the playing field and for the first time, other than when Nadal has been injured, he looks vulnerable on his beloved clay.
He has played only one tournament since March, losing in the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters to Diego Schwartzmann — his first loss to the Argentine in 10 meetings.
It would be dangerous to read too much into that as Nadal generally peaks at Roland Garros. But this time he will not benefit from the warm air and slippery, bouncy surface that usually makes his spinny shots all-but-impossible to handle.
Of course Nadal has a massive incentive, if ever he needed one. One more French Open and he will reach 20 Grand Slam titles and equal the record of Roger Federer who is absent injured.
World number one Novak Djokovic is favourite to claim a second French Open crown. The Serbian, who blew a chance to grab an 18th Grand Slam when he was defaulted at the US Open, has been invincible this year and warmed up with the Rome title.
Djokovic was also placed in an easier half of the draw. Second seed Nadal is on course to play newly-crowned US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals, the Austrian he beat to win the title in 2018 and 2019.
Fuelled with self-belief after his breakthrough, Thiem will believe he can win the title on his best surface, although danger awaits in round one in the shape of Marin Cilic.
Young guns like Stefanos Tsitsipas, US Open runner-up Alexander Zverev and Canadian Denis Shapovalov will scent an opening, as will former champion Stan Wawrinka whose first-round clash versus three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray will kick off the men’s tournament in style.
Meanwhile, women’s world number two Simona Halep stands out as the clear favourite to win this year bucking a recent trend of wide open women’s singles draws at Grand Slams.
Since Serena Williams took a break in 2017 to give birth to her daughter, there has been no standout player who has dominated the women’s game.
Romanian Halep has been in red-hot form and the absence of top-ranked Australian Ash Barty, who won her maiden Grand Slam in Paris last year, and US Open champion Naomi Osaka, will boost her chances further.
Halep could not have hoped for a better buildup to the French Open after picking up titles in Prague and Rome, arriving in Paris on a 14-match unbeaten streak, dating back to her triumph in Dubai before the professional circuit closed in March.
With Barty absent in Paris, Halep could also wrestle back the top ranking with a third Grand Slam title.
Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, second seed Karolina Pliskova and Williams all fit the bill when it comes to hitting the ball hard.
An aggressive baseliner with excellent court coverage, Halep took down both Muguruza and Pliskova en route to her triumph in Rome, though the Czech retired from the final through injury while trailing 6-0, 2-1.
The last defeat for the Romanian came against Muguruza when she lost to the 2016 Roland Garros champion in the semi-finals of this year’s Australian Open.
It was also in Melbourne that Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, won her 23rd Grand Slam title. She has since lost in four finals in her bid to equal Australian Margaret Court’s record 24 major singles titles.
She fell in the last four at her home Grand Slam this month against long-time rival Victoria Azarenka, who spectacularly revived her career in New York by winning the Western & Southern Open and then reaching the US Open final.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2020