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Brits Frozen Out As Roland Garros Shivers Into Life • Andy Murray Comes Up Flat

By Alix Ramsay

We will always have Paris. The trouble is that, at the end of September and with the blustering wind blowing the rain clouds directly over Roland Garros, you wonder who actually wants it.

It is brass monkeys in the French capital at the moment; this is not the time to be holding an outdoor tennis tournament. And not one on slow clay, not one that has just ditched its bouncy, lively Babolat balls and signed a deal with Wilson to provide balls that Rafa Nadal described as being so heavy that it felt like he was hitting a stone. This is grim by any standard.

A ball girl holds the new tournament Wilson tennis balls.

Regardless, the French Open shivered into life on Sunday watched by just 1,000 spectators – that was all the government would allow as the Covid infection rates keep rising in Paris. Just a week ago, they had planned on having 5,000 fans and even that had been cut back from their original hope of having 11,500.

In order to be fair, the 5,000 who had bought Sunday tickets to the Court Philippe Chatrier were put into a ballot: the first 1,000 names drawn would be allowed to attend.

A view of the crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier as Jannik Sinner of Italyn wins against David Goffin of Belgium

It makes you wonder what those balloted names were hoping for: did they want to be on court or did they want to be at home, in the warm, with their feet up and a glass of something interesting as they watched on TV? After all, those who buy the posh tickets for Roland Garros go to be seen as much as to see – and it is damned difficult to look chic in a puffa jacket, a beanie and several layers of thermal undies. Come to think of it, it makes going to the lav less than easy, but that is a discussion for another day.

Victoria Azarenka and Danka Kovinic return to the court for their women’s singles first round match at Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Vika Azarenka was certainly not a happy camper. She was playing the first match on Suzanne Lenglen against Danka Kovinic and it was bitterly cold. The wind was whipping every which way and it was raining – and after three games, she was off. The rain was now coming down in buckets and she was not willing to hang around and watch it fall. For all that Clare Wood, one of the supervisors, tried to make her stay, saying it was only “drizzle” (she’s a Brit; we do rain quite well here in Blighty), there was no stopping our Vika. And off she marched with Danka in tow.

“First of all, I don’t know what you call a little drizzle,” Vika said after having returned to the court and walloped Danka 6-1, 6-2. “When I was warming up it was already drizzling. So, when it drizzles for about two hours in a row, it kind of gets a little heavier.

“I think my opponent first of all slipped in the third game, so I think she was also feeling a little bit uncomfortable. And I just asked, like, when my grip is getting wet in between points, like, are we going to still continue to play? And then Clare told me that if I’m willing to wait a little bit longer while the drizzle stops, because the rain was supposed to increase, and I said absolutely not because I don’t see a point of sitting on the court when it’s 8 degrees C. 

“I, at the same time, asked my opponent if she wants to wait on the court or she wants to go off court, and she said she doesn’t want to wait on the court.”

And who could blame them? The weather did improve marginally as the day went on but, at best, the temperature was 57 degrees F – it was cold. And when the sun went down and the new, shiny floodlight went on, it was even colder. Not that the Brits lasted long enough to experience that.

The fabulous Frew McMillan, he of the desert-dry wit, announced on Eurosport that he reckoned the draw had been some form of French retaliation for Brexit: Andy Murray against Stan Wawrinka, Dan Evans against Kei Nishikori and Johanna Konta against Coco Gauff, all first round line-ups. He might have been right, too, as none of them survived.

Only Evo managed to win a set. He actually won two in a bizarre, see-saw match, but ended up on the losing end, going down 1-6, 6-1, 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. But it was Murray’s tame loss that was the most disappointing; he was awful and Stan was exactly as we expected him to be. Murray lost 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in a little over an hour and a half.

Andy Murray of Britain in action against Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland during their first round match.

The most surprising thing was the way he took it: he was quiet on court. No rage. No abuse aimed at his team. No fire. His serve was lame, his returning was worse – second serves sitting there ready to be attacked and Murray fluffed them. This was not good.

“I need to have a long, hard think about it,” he said. “I think that’s probably in terms of score line, I might be wrong, but I think that’s the worst defeat maybe of my career in a grand slam.

“I don’t feel like the conditions are an excuse for it. I don’t feel like that’s a valid reason, maybe to not enjoy the matches as much when it’s like that, but not in terms of it shouldn’t affect your performance in any way. I’ll need to have a long, hard think and try and understand what happened.

“If you serve at 38 per cent and you mistime a bunch of second-serve returns, it’s hard to play that way. I need to play better to allow me to play the right way, I think.”

Muzz is now heading home to prepare for as many tournaments as he can pack in between now and the end of the season. His next appointment is in Cologne at the bett1HULKS Indoors (which should be in the running for best tournament name of the year), an ATP 250. That gives him two weeks to practice indoors on a hard court – for him, far preferable to an outdoor clay court – and he did promise that his dismal effort against Wawrinka would be the last time he played like that in 2020.

“I reckon I won’t play a match like that between now and the end of the year,” he offered as his parting shot. His team may need to pack their earplugs and flak jackets for the trip to Germany.