In times as dire as these, it almost feels good to have an old-fashioned, tennis-can’t-get-out-of-its-own story to follow and argue about, doesn’t it?
And we have a doozy, one that puts the sport at cross-purposes in virtually every way imaginable. On Tuesday, officials at Roland Garros announced that, due to the threat of COVID-19, the tournament would be played from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4, instead of on its usual dates in late May and early June. Apparently, the organizers dropped this scheduling bombshell without any advance warning to the players, the tours, or the other three majors.
Reaction was predictably swift and outraged—by tennis’s polite standards, anyway.
“Excusez-moi?” Naomi Osaka tweeted.
“That’s insane,” Vasek Pospisil told The New York Times.
The US Open, in announcing that it won’t be changing its dates for the time being, shot some side-eye across the Atlantic: “At a time when the world is coming together, we recognize that such a decision should not be made unilaterally, and therefore the USTA would do so in full consultation with the other Grand Slam tournament, the WTA and ATP, the ITF, and our partners, including the Laver Cup.”
On Wednesday, the ATP and WTA issued a joint statement to announce that they were cancelling the rest of the clay-court season and freezing the rankings. There was no mention of Roland Garros, or the 10 events that are supposed to be played during its new dates. But the tours did close their press release with this pointed paragraph: “Now is not the time to act unilaterally, but in unison. All decisions related to the impact of the coronavirus require appropriate consultation with the stakeholders in the game, a view that is shared by ATP, WTA, ITF, AELTC, Tennis Australia, and USTA.” Conspicuously missing from that list: The French Tennis Federation.
Finally, officials from the Laver Cup, which is scheduled to be held in Boston from Sept. 25 to 27, stated that their event will go on as planned for now, despite the “many questions” that Roland Garros has raised with its move.
As we can see from the above statements, this rescheduling is almost perfectly designed to expose tennis’ lack of unity, and its circular-firing-squad approach to governance. Because Roland Garros is a Grand Slam, it has no stake in the ATP and WTA events that it will be overrunning in September. Because the Laver Cup is backed by the USTA and Tennis Australia, the FFT also has no problem decimating Roger Federer’s team exhibition event, no matter how popular it is. And because Roland Garros needs to pay for its recent expansion and new retractable roof, it couldn’t worry about starting just eight days after the US Open ends.
The sport is right to send some side-eye in Roland Garros’s direction. Like Wimbledon, the French Open is famous for doing things in its own stubborn way. But why drop a bombshell like this from out of the blue? Even Rafael Nadal, who probably stands to gain the most from this announcement, will now be asked to defend 4,000 ranking points—from his 2019 US Open and Roland Garros titles—in the space of five weeks. Along with Rafa, every other player will be asked to transition from hard courts to red clay, and from New York to Paris, in the space of a week. This should be a moment for cooperation, even in tennis.
On the other hand, most tennis players don’t have any guaranteed income; all of it comes from prize money, and last year Roland Garros offered $50 million of it, including $50,000 for first-round losers. And while money may be at the root of the FFT’s decision, new arenas and retractable roofs—and all the other things the federation does for French tennis over the course of the year—don’t pay for themselves. Plus, no matter what the songs say about springtime in Paris, the weather is warmer there in September than it is in May.
There’s no denying that this is a desperate move. But 2020 is a desperate year. Controversial scheduling and insider complaints aside, right now the prospect of watching Roland Garros in September fills me with joy and hope. The thought of players sliding across the red clay, and ball kids maniacally rolling the balls to each other, the way they do in Paris, makes me think the world might be OK after all. At this moment, I’d love nothing more than the opportunity to watch two unknowns grind through a five-hour war on a side court in Paris.
There’s no guarantee that the French Open, or any other tournament on the schedule, will be played this year. At least for now, though, Roland Garros, in its bullying, big-footing way, has given us a chance to dream. If the world is really ready for the tournament to be played in September, I’m going to thank the tennis gods, and any other gods I can think of, for the chance to see it.