Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

French Open Sets Marquee Matchups but Virus Still Looms

7 min read

Andy Murray is set to play Stan Wawrinka in the first round of the 2020 French Open: a major matchup that could never have taken place so early at a Grand Slam tournament when both were at their peaks for much of the last decade.

It remains remarkably unclear how many fans will get to see them in person.

“Life works in funny ways sometimes,” said Daniel Vallverdu, who coached Murray and is now coaching Wawrinka.

2020 has been particularly strange, and this pandemic edition of the French Open is no exception. It was postponed from its traditional May and June dates to September and October because of the tennis tour hiatus. Though the draw went ahead as scheduled in Paris on Thursday, French Open organizers are still facing big questions about this year’s event less than 72 hours before it is scheduled to begin on Sunday.

The initial plan (after the postponement) was to host as many as 20,000 spectators per day at Roland Garros Stadium. But a resurgence in coronavirus cases in France in recent weeks has forced the tournament leadership to significantly reduce the number of people on site.

On Wednesday, Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, announced that large planned events in many parts of France, including the Paris region, would be limited to no more than 1,000 people beginning Saturday.

Though the French Open was still planning on hosting 5,000 spectators per day, that now seems unlikely if it does indeed go ahead. . On Thursday after the draw, Jean Castex, the French prime minister, said in a French television appearance that the 1,000-person daily limit applied not only to fans but to all accredited personnel on site. That would include players and their team members, officials, security workers, reporters, broadcast technicians and others. According to the French Tennis Federation, the number of those accredited far exceeds the 1,000-person limit.

“There is no reason we would not apply the same rules to everyone,” Castex said, when pressed on the issue.

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Updated 2020-09-25T02:06:48.661Z

“It’s up to them to determine.” he said of the French Open organizers when asked if the tournament could go ahead with the new restrictions. “Based on the information they gave me, the answer is yes.”

Earlier on Thursday, Bernard Giudicelli, president of the French Tennis Federation, told French reporters that the tournament would go ahead and late Thursday night, L’Équipe, the French sports site, reported that Castex had misspoken and that the 1,000 limit only applied to spectators, not to those accredited, all of whom have been required to record a negative coronavirus test before accessing the site.

Forget is arguing that the tournament has both the space and the requisite health and safety protocols to still host crowds of up to 5,000 daily. “We are playing this tournament outdoors on the equivalent of 15 soccer fields,” Forget said. “Everybody is wearing a mask, even the ball persons and the chair umpires.”

The French Open, like the United States Open, is the primary source of funding for its domestic tennis federation, with French tennis relying on the profits at the local and professional levels. According to Agence France-Presse, approximately 80 percent of the French Tennis Federation’s annual budget of 325 million euros ($379 million) in 2019 came from the tournament.

There were 520,000 spectators in 2019, accounting for about 18 percent of the French Open’s total revenue. There will also be major losses in sponsor hospitality and merchandising, but as with the U.S. Open, which finished on Sept. 13 and was played without spectators, broadcast rights revenue would remain largely untouched. Those rights are worth about 80 million euros ($93.3 million) annually, according to A.F.P.

Fans or no fans, if the tournament goes ahead it will have first-round matchups to savor. Murray and Wawrinka are both three-time major champions, and they last played at the French Open in 2017 with Wawrinka defeating Murray, then ranked No. 1, in five grinding sets.

Murray’s hip condition was becoming a major issue at that stage, and he would eventually require two surgeries. Wawrinka was developing knee problems that forced him to undergo surgery later in 2017.

Both have yet to return to the fore. Murray is ranked 111 and required a wild card to play in the French Open. Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open champion, is still seeded 16th. He and Murray practiced together earlier this week on Philippe Chatrier Court, which has been rebuilt since they last played and now has a retractable roof.

“Been a long journey to get back on Court Philippe Chatrier,” Murray wrote on Instagram. “Three and a half years since I played Stan Wawrinka in a brutal five-set semifinal which turned out to be the end of my hip.”

That was shortly before the draw threw them back together again.

“You can’t make it up,” Vallverdu said. “It’s like John Isner and Nicolas Mahut playing back to back years at Wimbledon after the longest match in history.”

Murray vs. Wawrinka will not be the only men’s first round match between Grand Slam singles champions. Dominic Thiem, who joined that club earlier this month by winning the United States Open, will face Marin Cilic, another former U.S. Open champion.

Thiem, seeded No. 3, was also placed in the same half of the draw as Rafael Nadal, who has won a record 12 French Open singles titles and will play the 83rd-ranked Egor Gerasimov in the first round. Alexander Zverev, the powerful German who lost to Thiem in the U.S. Open final and has had considerable success on clay, is also in that half.

Nadal defeated Thiem in the last two French Open finals, and they and No. 1 Novak Djokovic are considered the main threats for the men’s title this year.

While Nadal and Thiem could be on course for a semifinal match, Djokovic has what appears to be an easier path. He will face Mikael Ymer of Sweden in the first round and has No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in his quarter of the draw and No. 4 Daniil Medvedev in his half. But Medvedev, the flat-hitting and tactic-shifting Russian, has a losing tour record on clay.

In the women’s tournament, Serena Williams got a rematch with Kristie Ahn, a fellow American, in the first round. Williams defeated Ahn in the first round of this year’s U.S. Open on her way to the semifinals, where she was beaten by Victoria Azarenka.

Williams won the French Open in 2002, 2013 and 2015, but clay remains her weakest surface and she withdrew in the fourth round in 2018 and lost in the third round in 2019 to Sofia Kenin of the United States.

Her path this year looks daunting as she continues to chase a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title. The sixth-seeded Williams, who will turn 39 on Saturday, could have a series of rematches early. In the second round, she could face Tsvetana Pironkova, whom she beat in the quarterfinals in New York. In the fourth round, she could face Azarenka, the No. 10 seed, who is in sparkling form. No. 3 seed Elina Svitolina is in their quarter of the draw; No. 1 Simona Halep, the 2018 French Open champion, is in their half.

But other stars are missing. Before the draw, 10th-ranked Belinda Bencic announced her withdrawal from the French Open, leaving the tournament with only six of the top 10 women. No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, the reigning champion, announced her withdrawal earlier this month, and No. 3 Naomi Osaka, who just won the U.S. Open, and No. 7 Bianca Andreescu also have withdrawn.

This year’s U.S. Open was missing six of the women’s top 10.

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