ROLAND GARROS – The way this year’s Roland Garros is going, those of us journalists who have made it to Paris might well do double and triple duty sweeping the courts and wiping off the benches with antiseptic after every match.
After the French health minister announced on Wednesday that the 5,000 cap on public gatherings was to be dropped to 1,000 by Saturday in eight metropolitan areas (including Paris), Roland Garros was firmly in the crosshairs.
And no matter what positive words tournament director Guy Forget said in a press conference late Thursday afternoon, it wasn’t up to him.
And so, on Thursday night, French prime minster Jean Castex announced on the France 2 network that the capacity at this year’s tournament would be lowered to 1,000.
Behind closed doors, just about
Originally, when the situation with the coronavirus was better this summer, they had hoped to have 20,000 a day. That would have been about half the usual capacity.
Then, it was lowered to 11,500 – with the tournament site separated into three distinct zones. There would 5,000 on Court Philippe-Chatrier with access to a few field courts. As well, 5,000 more on Court Suzanne-Lenglen with access to other field courts, and 1,500 on Court Simonne-Mathieu.
It was optimistic, given the new rise in COVID-19 cases. And even if the tournament was in communication and negotiations with the government, it wasn’t looking good.
Thursday, it was official, as Castex confirmed it on the popular talk show “Vous avez la parole” (The floor is yours).
“There is no reason we shouldn’t apply the same rules to everyone,” Castex said, as the show’s hosts pointed out the size of the site (12 hectares) and the number of people already accounted for between players, teams, staff, media and organizers.
“It’s up to them to define how they’ll do it.”
That flies in the face of what French Federation president Bernard Giudicelli said back in June – that there was no way the tournament would be held behind closed doors. This would be almost that.
But as much as Giudicelli said he was “close” to the highest levels of government, and that the French federation needed to work with them to show that France can handle the pandemic by putting on its biggest sporting events, he doesn’t decide.
Forget pulls out the arguments – to no avail
Earlier in the day, Forget pointed out the size of the site and how those 5,000 people could spread out. That contrasted with Castex’s contention that it would basically be like a soccer match played behind closed doors. Also – it’s happening outdoors.
“Everything that was in place for several weeks was done with the accord of the health authorities,” Forget said, pointing out that the site was as big as 15 soccer fields and the 5,000 fans would be spread amongst 14 match courts.
Forget also tried the “sending a positive message” tact. He pointed out that Roland Garros is one of the biggest sporting events in France, and the pictures are broadcast to 220 countries.
“Each additional restriction is a signal we’re sending that it might be dangerous to come here. Which is not the case,” Forget said, pointing out that with the Tour de France, everything went well.
There were hundreds of people at close proximity to the cyclists, none of whom tested positive, Forget said.
“What we hope is to send a positive message today – to all the tennis fans, all the people who want life to start again. It’s been a bit painful the last months,” he said. “Even if we have to stay extremely prudent, it feels like we’re responsible, and stay that way, and the tournament can be done in safe conditions.”
Castex clearly wasn’t listening to Forget’s arguments.
So … what’s next?
You suspect the tournament organizers aren’t going to get a lot of sleep Thursday night.
It’s hard to imagine there aren’t already over 1,000 credentials distributed. And a lot of people aren’t even on site yet, including players. (This, by the way, was a fact the prime minister seemed completely unaware of).
L’Équipe reported late Thursday that the number of credentials was actually over 4,000 – about what the US Open needed to run a bare-bones tournament a few weeks ago.
But the government has put the tournament in an incredibly tough position, by being so intransigent and inflexible about the new restrictions – especially as the event is already under way.
Will there be no tournament at all? Castex said on the broadcast that from what he has been told, it was in no danger of being cancelled altogether.
“From the information they’ve given me, the answer is yes (it will go ahead), Castex said.
L’Équipe also reported that according to its sources, that 1,000 number would strictly be the number of fans on site each day. It said that the number of credentialed staff of all sorts wasn’t affected, although that number would surely be revised downward.
If nothing else, you don’t need as much event staff on hand when you’re going to have 20 per cent of the number of fans you expected to have.