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France’s Sports Ban Could Mean The End For Rescheduled French Open Tennis

By Alix Ramsay

That light at the end of the tunnel that we all fixed our hopes on may yet turn out to be no more than the last flickerings of a dodgy 20 watt bulb before it fizzles out for good.

Tennis, we were told, might be back in the autumn. This was good news. Suddenly, there was talk from everyone about reorganising the calendar for the rest of the 2020 season, of uniting for the future and of helping those less fortunate than the stars at the top of the game.

But so far, the Big Three’s plan to have the top 100 fork out cash for those ranked 250 to 700 has gone awfully quiet. As for the enthusiasm for using the enforced break from competition to, potentially, bring the men’s and women’s tours closer together – it sounded good in theory but no one has any idea how it will work out in practice.

The first major stumbling block there must surely be equal prize money – and Mr Djokovic has had plenty to say on that in the past. The tournament directors, meanwhile, must be terrified. Just as an example: last year Alison Riske won the ‘s-Hertogenbosch title and pocketed $43,000. She was well pleased. But Adrian Mannarino also won the ‘s-Hertogenbosch title yet he, being on the ATP tour, took home $119,000.

It is not as if the WTA tour does not actively seek bigger and better sponsors but tennis is a business and businesses have to abide by market forces: if the sponsors would rather put more money into men’s tennis than women’s, there is not a lot anyone can do about it.

If the tours unite, presumably all the money would be put into one big pot with the spoils shared equally. That would mean the women getting a pay rise and the men taking a pay cut. If it didn’t work that way, all hell would break loose. Either way, all hell would break loose.

But that is for the heady days when tennis actually starts up again. The news on Tuesday that the French government had banned all mass sporting events until September caught everyone off guard. The Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, made the government’s stance very clear.

“No large sports gathering or any gathering of 5,000 people or more, needing the permission of the local police and long prior arrangements, will be allowed before September,” he said. “The 2019-20 season of professional sports, including football, will not be able to resume. It will be possible, on sunny days, to practise an individual sporting activity outdoors, respecting the rules on social distancing. It will not be possible to practise sport in covered places, nor team nor contact sports.”

That left the French Open’s plans to hold their event starting on September 20 looking a little less than secure. True enough, the ban may have been lifted by then but how far will the restrictions be relaxed? Enough to allow 500,000 people to spend 13 days standing shoulder to shoulder trying to get a glimpse of a famous player or a hand on an over-priced baguette? Probably not.

Even if the event were to be held behind closed doors, it would still involve 3,000 people or more and trying to find space for social distancing in player lounges, media work rooms, broadcast areas and the places where line judges and umpires usually rest and prepare does not seem possible. And if it rains, would they be allowed to use the roof? Because then they would be practising an individual sport in a covered area. And that is not allowed.

Then there is the problem of who would want to risk their health by playing. Or officiating. Or reporting. There is no vaccine and there is no cure for Covid-19.

The players, like everyone else on the planet, have been trying to keep themselves and their families safe for weeks, hiding away at home and not venturing out. Would they suddenly in September happily jump on a plane, head to Paris and muck in with everyone else at Roland Garros? Would the French government allow several thousand people to flock to Paris, all of them coming from different parts of the world, from countries in different phases of the virus cycle to France – some better, some worse – and spend three weeks in the capital? It seems unlikely given that when France first went into lockdown, the restrictions prohibited people travelling more than one kilometre from their homes. And even that was tightened up when the sun came out and people took to the outdoors claiming it was only for “exercise”.

Everyone wants life to return to normal and sport is a huge part of most people’s “normal”. But without a vaccine, international travel cannot be as free and easy as it once was and without international travel, the tennis tours cannot exist.

Even when the lockdown restrictions are eased, they will not be completely removed. The effects of Covid-19 on every aspect of our lives will be felt for a long, long while yet.

If only the answer was as simple as changing that dodgy 20 watt bulb.

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