PARIS — Perhaps 10 years ago, over a late dinner at the Porte d’Auteuil after a long day covering Roland Garros matches, I remember agreeing with Philippe Bouin, the great French writer tennis for L’Équipe, that if the French Open ever chooses to join other Grand Slam tournaments and evening sessions on stage, it would be a good time to move on to other activities instead of dropping stories long after midnight and miss a chance at a last bistro meal.
There are certainly bigger problems in tennis, but Bouin more or less kept his word, retiring well before the French Open adopted its “night sessions” in 2021. But I continued to come, and there I was bundled up in an almost full stadium as Tuesday turned into Wednesday and May into June as Rafael Nadal finished Novak Djokovic in their emotional quarter-final at 1:15 a.m.
I was there too, walking out of Roland Garros a few hours later and – with no public transport available – watching a few French fans still trying in vain to hail a taxi or book a ride.
Night sessions definitely have their edge in tennis: electric vibes, prime-time coverage (depending on time zone) and the ability for day-working fans to attend in person.
But the new Roland Garros night sessions, created primarily to boost profits for an event that lags behind other Grand Slam events in domestic television revenue, have also had many downsides. That’s largely because the French have decided to do it their own way by scheduling just one game in this slot instead of the usual two on offer at other Grand Slam events.
Guy Forget, the former Roland-Garros tournament director who was involved in the decision, said it was made “so that the games don’t end at 3 a.m.”.
Wimbledon remains an obstacle to night sessions (the grass becomes even more slippery after sunset). But the US Open and Australian Open, which have had nightly sessions for decades, usually schedule a men’s singles match and a women’s singles match, and there have been a few sleepless nights along the way, including including a Lleyton Hewitt win over Marcos Baghdatis. at the 2008 Australian Open which ended at 4:34 a.m. (it was one hell of a sunrise on the way back to the hotel.)
Roland-Garros’ approach has been problematic in terms of value for money – is a blast in the cold, like Daniil Medvedev’s Marin Cilic rout – worth well over 100 euros a ticket?
This has also been problematic for gender equality. The 10 nights of Roland Garros this year have included only one women’s match: the victory of the French Alizé Cornet against the Latvian Jelena Ostapenko. It was the same ratio last year, when the tournament started night sessions, without fans on nine of the 10 nights due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The disparity has continued even though Amélie Mauresmo, former French No. 1 in the WTA, is the new director of the French Open tournament. Pressed on the issue on Wednesday, the day after the Nadal-Djokovic duel, Mauresmo displayed awkward footwork, saying that as a woman and “former women’s player” she didn’t “feel wrong or unfair to say that right now” the men’s game was generally more appealing and appealing than the women’s game.
Mauresmo said her goal after the draw was to try and find women’s matches she could put in that nightly showcase. But she said she struggled to find the marquee matchups and star power she was looking for. Women’s matches are also generally shorter with a best-of-three-sets format, compared to best-of-five for men.
“I admit it was hard,” she said. “It was difficult for more than one night to find, as you say, match of the day,” she said, sounding somewhat apologetic.
Iga Swiatek, the 21-year-old Polish star, did not get a night assignment despite being the new No. 1 and former Roland-Garros champion.
“It’s a little disappointing and surprising,” Swiatek said of Mauresmo’s comments after running her 33-match singles winning streak 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 game.”
In a text message, Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, expressed his disapproval of the evening schedule and the fact that the women’s matches were generally chosen as the opener on the two main show grounds during the daytime sessions: a time slot in which the crowds and audience is often smaller.
“The generation and depth of talent we are seeing in the sport right now is incredible,” he said. “Our fans want to see the excitement and thrill of women’s tennis on the biggest stages and in prime time slots. There is certainly room for improvement, and if we are to build the value of our combined product, then a Balanced match schedule is essential to provide this pathway.
The WTA lacked superstar power at Roland Garros with the surprise retirement of top-ranked Ashleigh Barty in March, the first-round defeats of Naomi Osaka and defending Roland-Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, and the continued absence of Serena and Venus Williams. , who have not yet competed this year.
But the one-game night format has also made it difficult to showcase Swiatek, who wins most of his matches in a rush at this stage. “Playing time is definitely a factor,” Mauresmo said in a text message.
Why not just schedule two games, or two women’s games, at night to ensure enough entertainment? Because, according to Mauresmo, the broadcasting contracts for the night sessions from 2021 to 2023 stipulate that there will be only one match.
“Impossible to change that,” said Mauresmo. “But we will still discuss with our partners to think about other possibilities that could satisfy ticket holders.”
Seems like a good idea, as would starting before 8:45 p.m., even with just one game, if the idea is to spare players too many late nights and avoid irritating neighbors in the leafy, peaceful suburb of Boulogne , which was another reason for the concept of a match.
The biggest problem in France is accessibility. Amazon Prime Video, the internet broadcaster that bought the night session rights here, has a small footprint compared to the traditional public broadcaster. And yet, he is supposed to get the showpiece match even if the contract, according to L’Équipe, leaves the last word to the organizers of Roland-Garros.
But there was no doubt about Tuesday’s showpiece match, and although Amazon Prime exceptionally agreed to allow free access to its service to viewers in France, the decision to schedule Nadal and Djokovic’s quarter-final on the night sparked debate and anger.
“The decisions of the French Tennis Federation deeply shock me,” Delphine Ernotte, president of France Télévisions, told Le Figaro. “This is a low blow to our partnership after years of publicizing and popularizing the event.”
The fact that the tournament match ended at 1:15 a.m. on a weeknight certainly wasn’t ideal for the viewership in France either. And while the atmosphere was still transcendent inside the main stadium after midnight, there was a price to pay on the way home.
The organizers of the French Open have not yet reached an agreement with the Parisian authorities to maintain public transport after very late arrivals.
The metro was closed, and so—as Bouin and I had long feared—so were the bistros.