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It’s A Mad World, My Masters – Especially When You Masters Are Running The French Open Tennis

By Alix Ramsay

The world has gone mad. Well, we knew that already after the last seven months, but now it has gone stark-staring bonkers.

Thursday was the first official day of autumn: October 1. To mark the occasion, the weather in Paris got better – it was warmer, there were gaps in the clouds with genuine blue sky peeping through and, at times, the sun shone. And to mark the fact that it was as decent an autumn day as was possible, the Roland Garros organisers kept the roof shut on Court Philippe Chatrier and allowed every one else to keep playing on the outside courts, sans lid. How very French of them.

There was a bit of drizzle, fair enough, but it was nothing to worry about. And it moved on quite quickly. No matter: the majority of players were involved in an outdoor tournament while the first two women’s matches on the main court were playing indoors (where Jelena Ostapenko beat Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-2). Maybe the FFT had spent so much money on their new roof that they just wanted to use it; maybe the world had, indeed, gone mad.

Jelena Ostapenko in action against Karolina Pliskova.

But Paris is always different from the rest of the world.

Go to a restaurant in the US and you are swamped with serving staff. They, bless ‘em, never give you a moment of peace: would you like some water? What sort of water would you like? Sparkling? Still? Tap? Are you ready to order? Would you like to hear the specials? Can I get you more bread? How is your starter? Are you done with that? Would you like a doggy bag? Would like some more wine? And so it goes on. Teams of them flock to your table offering help, ordering advice and cheery chat. They can drive you nuts but they are working hard for their tip at the end of the evening.

Then you go to dinner in Paris. If you are speaking English at the table, you will be ignored for a goodly while. If you ask a question about the menu, you will be given the cold shoulder. “Er, what exactly is jugged lièvre aux chantrelles?” you ask hesitantly. The waiter rolls his eyes and explains that it is “jugged lièvre aux chantrelles”. You are none the wiser and, now, absolutely petrified of the man in black at your elbow. (It is actually jugged hare with mushrooms and utterly delicious. But you don’t know this yet.)

You ask for some water and some bread. The waiter glares at you as if you have just cast aspersions about the morals of his mother and marches off to the kitchen. He returns much, much later with your jugged lièvre aux chantrelles but no bread. Or water. Or wine. You ask for all three.

He huffs and grabs a wine menu from the next table. You order some red. He gives you the evil eye: you have not ordered the most expensive red. He gets your wine and pours it grudgingly. You mention the water and the bread again. He glares. By the time you have finished your main course and are ready to leave, he brings the bread. Still no water. But he expects a tip. Yet this is Paris; this is the way it is. They do things differently there.

That part of the experience, we expect. But Paris needed to fall in the line with the rest of the world for these two weeks. The global pandemic requires everyone to pull out all the stops and keep people safe. But that has not happened. As is the way in Paris, their attitude to a global pandemic – therefore, a foreign issue – seems to be a Gallic shrug.

In New York, there was a bio-bubble created for everyone accredited for the US Open. In Paris, there are two player hotels, lots of people ready to ram a Q-Tip up the nostril of any passing badge wearer but little by way of bio-security.

As play began today, Jim Courier appeared on ITV 4 to set the scene. How had his day been so far? Well, it had been good except that he had to have another Covid test in order to keep his accreditation open for the next few days.

Yet, as he told us this, he was inside the bio-bubble, chatting to the camera. He had only had his test as he entered the site. Unless the results were magicked back to him in nano-seconds, he did not know whether he was positive or negative. But there he was, working within the bubble.

After Denis Shapovalov lost to Roberto Carballes Baena 7-5, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6 in five, gruelling hours, he suggested that maybe, just maybe, the French had not got it right on any front.

“Honestly I think they’re not doing a good job,” he said. “There’s really no bubble, especially in the second hotel, I heard.

“Scheduling is absolutely awful. I mean, after a five-hour match I have to play doubles now. It’s just like, it’s just complete trash scheduling. It’s disappointing. I mean you’re in a grand slam and I don’t want to sound spoiled, you know, but you expect at least some help from the tournament to help you compete.

Denis Shapovalov of Canada reacts as he plays Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain.

“How am I supposed to come out and play doubles now after a five-hour match? It’s a first round as well, they could have scheduled it way better, way easier, I mean it’s not acceptable.

“And the bubble as well. I mean, it’s just, there is no bubble. You can leave the hotel, you can go to the city, there’s no problem, there’s nobody stopping you, so it’s, New York was done way better.”

Shapo is not a whinger. He hates the cold, slow conditions; he hates the slow, heavy balls but he knew that he had his chances to win his match and he missed them. Fair play to his opponent, then. Carballes Baena managed the day better and will now play Grigor Dimitrov in the third round. But Shapo has the right to complain about the organisation – and in that, he is not alone.

Alexander Zverev was happy enough to win on Wednesday and he is delighted to have the chance to play at the French Open in these difficult times – but he cannot compare his experience of New York to his stay in Paris.

“Because [the US Open] was the first, they wanted to impress us players,” he said. “They wanted to do something amazing, which I honestly think they did.

“The hotel was obviously not a five-star hotel but how they have done everything in the lobby, everything with the games, with the golf simulator, with the basketball, with the mini golf, with all different kinds of entertainment stuff, how they did the outside area with massive screens, how they did the food trucks, every day a different food truck, how they did just everything. It felt like massive camping trip with all the tennis players.

“The on-site stuff was amazing. Obviously, the suites helped a lot, how they did everything on-site. The entertainment on-site was quite incredible as well. The spacing was incredible.”

And Paris, how does that stack up? Not so well, as it turns out.

“Here nothing really has changed to a normal tournament except that there are less people,” he said. “We still have our players’ areas. We don’t have the entertainment that we did in New York. The hotel is not really a bubble.

Alexander Zverev reacts as he plays Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France.

“There are other guests staying there. In the room next to me there are guests, regular guests, staying there with souvenirs every single day that they come, you know, from the Eiffel Tower and stuff like that.

“You can’t compare the two. New York has impressed us players. Here they have not done too much.”

So far, there have not been many positive Covid tests at Roland Garros – and the few there have been were spotted early on. But with no proper bubble, how long will that last?

The roof of Court Philippe Chatrier is closed due to the weather conditions in Paris, France.

As the sun shines and the roof over Court Philippe Chatrier shuts, the French Open defies belief. ‘Twas ever thus in Paris.