PARIS – Probably 10 years ago, over a long dinner at La Porte d’Auteuil after a long day of covering matches at Roland Garros, I remember agreeing with Philippe Bouin, the great French tennis writer for L’Équipe, if the French Open. Ever chose to join other Grand Slam tournaments and stage night sessions, it would be a good time to move on to other pursuits instead of filing stories long after midnight and missing any chance at a last-call bistro meal.
There are certainly bigger issues in tennis, but Bouin kept his word more or less, retiring long before the French Open adopted its “sessions de nuit” in 2021. But I kept coming, and there I was bundled up in a near full. Stadium as Tuesday turned into Wednesday and May into June as Rafael Nadal finished off Novak Djokovic in their stirring quarterfinal at 1:15 am
There I was, too, walking out of Roland Garros a couple of hours later and – with no public transport available – a few French fans observing were still trying to vain to get a taxi or book a ride.
Night sessions have their upsides in tennis, no doubt: electric atmosphere, prime-time coverage (depending on one’s time zone) and fans for those who attend work during the day.
But the new night sessions at Roland Garros, created above all to increase profits for an event that trails other domestic television revenue at the Grand Slam events, also have plenty of downsides. That’s largely because the French decided to do it their own way by scheduling just one match that instead of two slot, the usual offering at other Grand Slam events.
Guy Forget, a former French Open tournament director who was part of that decision, said it was made “so matches would not end at 3 am”
Wimbledon currently has a holdout on night sessions (grass gets even more slippery after sunset). But the US Open and the Australian Open, which have had night sessions for decades, usually schedule a men’s singles match and a women’s singles match, and there have been a few all-nighters along the way, including a Lleyton Hewitt victory over Marcos Baghdatis. at the 2008 Australian Open that ended at 4:34 am (it was quite a sunrise on the way back to the hotel.)
That has been problematic in terms of value for money – a blowout in the chill, like Marin Cilic’s rout of Daniil Medvedev – worth well over 100 euros a ticket?
It has also been problematic for gender equality. The 10 Roland Garros night sessions this year featured just one women’s match: the Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet’s victory over Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. This was the same ratio last year, when the tournament debuted the night sessions, with no fans on nine to 10 nights because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The disparity has continued even though Amélie Mauresmo, a former WTA no. 1 from France, is the new French Open tournament director. Pressed on the issue Wednesday, the morning after the Nadal-Djokovic duel, Mauresmo displayed clumsy footwork, saying that as a woman and a “former female player,” she “didn’t feel bad or unfair saying that right now”. The game was generally more attractive and appealing than the women’s game.
Mauresmo said her goal came after the draw was to try to find women’s matches that she could put in that showcase nighttime slot. But she said she struggled to find the marquee matchups and star power she was seeking. Women’s matches are also typically shorter with a best-of-three-sets format, compared to the best of five for men.
“I admit it was tough,” she said. “It was tough for more than one night to find, as you say, the match of the day,” she said, sounding slightly apologetic.
Iga Swiatek, the 21-year-old Polish star, didn’t get a nighttime assignment being the new no. 1 and a former French Open champion.
“It’s a little bit disappointing and surprising,” Swiatek said of Mauresmo’s comments following his winning streak to 33 singles matches on Wednesday with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Jessica Pegula, an American. She added that it was more convenient for most players to compete during the day, “but for sure I want to entertain, and I also want to show my best tennis in every match.”
In a text message, Steve Simon, the WTA chief, expressed disapproval with the nighttime scheduling and the fact that women’s matches were often picked up on the opening match during the day’s sessions: a time slot in which crowds And the viewership are often smaller.
“The generation and depth of talent we are currently witnessing in the sport is incredible,” he said. “Our fans want to see the excitement and thrill of women’s tennis on the biggest stages and in the premium time slots. There is definitely room for improvement, and if we want to build our value-added product, then a balanced match schedule is critical in providing that pathway. “
The WTA was short on superstar power at Roland Garros with the surprise retirement of top-ranked Ashleigh Barty in March, the first-round defeats of Naomi Osaka and the defending French Open champion, Barbora Krejcikova, and the continued absence of Serena and Venus Williams. , who has yet to compete this year.
But the one-match nighttime format also made it difficult to showcase Swiatek, who is winning most of his matches in a hurry at this stage. “The amount of playing time is definitely a factor,” Mauresmo said in a text message.
Why not simply schedule two matches, or two women’s matches, at night to guarantee enough entertainment? Because, according to Mauresmo, the night-session broadcast contracts from 2021 through 2023 stipulate that there will be just one match.
“Impossible to change that,” Mauresmo said. “But we will still talk to our partners about other possibilities that could satisfy ticket holders.”
That sounds like a good idea, as it starts earlier than 8:45 pm, even with a single match, if the idea is to spare players too late at night and avoid irritating neighbors in the leafy and peaceful suburb of Boulogne, which was Another reason for the one-match concept.
The bigger issue in France is accessibility. Amazon Prime Video, the internet broadcaster that bought the night-session rights here, has a smaller footprint compared to the traditional public broadcaster. And yet it is supposed to get the marquee match even if the contract, according to L’Équipe, allows the French Open organizers the final say.
But there was no doubt about the marquee match on Tuesday, and although Amazon Prime has exceptionally allowed free access to its service audience in France, the decision to schedule Nadal and Djokovic’s quarterfinal sparked debate and anger at night.
“The French Tennis Federation’s decisions shocks profoundly,” Delphine Ernotte, president of France Televisions, told Le Figaro. “It’s a low blow to our partnership after we have broadcast and popularized the event for years.”
To have a matchup of the tournament at 1:15 am on a weeknight was certainly not great for the spectatorship in France, either. And though the atmosphere was still transcendent inside the main stadium the following evening, there was a price to pay on the road home.
French Open organizers have yet to reach an agreement with the Parisian authorities to keep public transport operating after very late finishes.
The Métro was closed, and so – as Bouin and I feared long ago – were the bistros.