The City of Less Light: Implications of Roland Garros' September start

The City of Less Light: Implications of Roland Garros' September start

Dwindling daylight and rainier weather could pose new challenges for both tournament organizers and players.

With Roland Garros beginning in late September, there are a number of factors related to seasonal climate and conditions that pose new implications for everyone involved. That the tournament is played on clay makes the environment-tennis connection even more significant than if it were played on a hard court, potentially affecting everything from how the courts play, to how the ball looks, to fitness and scheduling. 

"It’s amazing how the surface changes with humidity, moisture, rain—everything," says 1993 Roland Garros men’s doubles champion Luke Jensen.  

"There has to be some susceptibility to some bad weather that time of year," says Todd Martin, CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Martin also has the rare experience of having competed at Roland Garros in September, back in 2002, when the U.S. Davis Cup team traveled there for a tie versus France. ("I do remember it being a bit chilly," he says.)

"For all of these events, organizers really would like some added confidence in knowing what to do," says Dan Slagen, chief marketing officer for Boston-based ClimaCell, a weather intelligence platform that works with many sports organizations, including the US Open. ClimaCell is currently helping many organizers prepare for the current wave of rescheduled events.

Here’s a look at many factors that could impact Roland Garros, highlighted by extensive data compiled by ClimaCell. 


Temperature

May-June                                                                       September-October
Average High                                                                 Average High
+ 68 degrees Fahrenheit                                             + 70 degrees Fahrenheit

Average Low                                                                  Average Low
+ 50 degrees Fahrenheit                                             + 55 degrees Fahrenheit

Implication

In theory, not much different. Patrick McEnroe, U.S. Davis Cup captain at that 2002 tie, notes that, "The sun is different, and later in the day, it will get cooler, which could slow things down and make it a little heavier." 


Rainfall

May-June                                                                       September-October
Average per day                                                            Average per day
+ 1 mm per hour                                                           + 3 mm per hour
+ maximum seen: 7.5 mm per hour                         + maximum seen: 14 mm per hour

Implication

This could be the biggest game-changer. In recent years, rain has only sporadically intruded on Roland Garros (save for 2016, when many days were extensively interrupted).

"Clay is the only surface you can keep playing on," says Jensen. "It’s got to be a downpour to stop. If it’s a mild drizzle, you play through it.  But if there’s more rain, it gets you on edge more, wondering when you’re going to eat, warm up, stretch, practice."

According to McEnroe, thicker conditions might help a player like John Isner with his movement.

"When it’s drier," says McEnroe, "you have to move quicker." 

Slagen notes that, “If there’s more rain, you’ll need to understand the court conditions. When do you need to tarp the courts? What’s tomorrow going to look like?”

But then there is also the new roof on Court Philippe-Chatrier that will make it possible to continue playing at least some matches, should there be rain so heavy that play must cease on the outer courts. As is the case at all majors, it’s best for such delays to happen during the second week, when there are far fewer matches. 

Getty Images


Wind

May-June                                                                        September-October
Average low wind gust                                                 Average low wind gust
+ 7 mph                                                                           + 8 mph

Average high wind gust                                                Average high wind gust
+ 20 mph                                                                         + 22 mph

Implication

Possibly slightly windier, but perhaps only more of a factor should the temperature get colder.     


Daylight Hours

May-June                                                                        September-October
Sunset                                                                               Sunset       
+ days keep getting longer                                           + days keep getting shorter
+ 9:43 p.m. on Friday, May 29                                    + 7:37 p.m. on Sunday, September 27

Implication

This year marks the debut of lights at Roland Garros; eight courts will be lit. But whereas in the traditional scheduling arrangement, they would be turned on far later in the day, playing the event in autumn means night play will begin sooner. At this point, lights will only be turned on for matches that have already begun.

It’s likely a certainty that Roland Garros will have the finest lights possible. Still, as sharp as the eyesight of the pros is, Jensen points out that, "At night, I found it harder to see the ball. The balls pick up the clay.  They get dirty." 

Earlier darkness will also mean it will get colder sooner.


Clay-Court Season

May-June                                                                        September-October
+ Starts in early April                                                   + Started during second week of US Open

Implication

Lacking the traditional long spring buildup for Roland Garros, players will be far less fit for clay-court tennis (or any tennis) than usual. "The clay-court season will be like getting ready for Wimbledon," says Jensen.


Spectators

2019                                                                                 2020
+ 520,000                                                                      + 5,000, only on Court Philippe Chatrier 

Implication

While the likes of Roger Federer have expressed their resistance to compete inside an empty stadium, others such as Boris Becker see it differently. On an Instagram chat with fellow ex-pro Vijay Amritraj, Becker said, "It is not ideal, but most tennis players need to make a living." 

According to McEnroe, "No question, it’s going to be different, but even with all these logistical issues, I’d rather deal with that than have no tennis at all."