Delayed start gets fans, Federer, Serena back to French Open

The stands at Roland Garros’ Court Philippe Chatrier were barely occupied last September. Typically the men’s final at the French Open holds a capacity of 15,225 and in 2020 there were only 1,000 masked fans under a retractable roof to watch Rafael Nadal make history at the postponed grand slam amid a global pandemic.

Eight months later, COVID-19 is still a force to be reckoned with and has delayed the tournament for yet a second year. This time it’s only by a week and it was a calculated decision to make things start looking more normal again. 

In April, the French Tennis Federation made the call to delay the tournament by one week, a judgment that was in concert with French president Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that things could open back up soon. For the first 10 days of the tournament, there will be 1,000 fans allowed at each of the three biggest courts, with a 35 percent capacity limit to the smaller venues. By the time the quarterfinals are underway on June 9, the limit will be raised to 5,000 fans in the largest two courts, according to reports. 

“It will give the health situation more time to improve and should optimise [sic] our chances of welcoming spectators at Roland-Garros, into our newly-transformed stadium that now covers more than 30 acres,” FTF president Gilles Moretton said in a press release on the Roland Garros website.

“For the fans, the players and the atmosphere, the presence of spectators is vital for our tournament, the spring’s most important international sporting event.”

Fans aren’t the only ones returning.

Roger Federer wants his record back

When Nadal beat Novak Djokovic last year, he tied Roger Federer’s record of 20 grand slam wins. 

Federer didn’t play in the 2020 tournament due to knee surgery and reportedly sat out of January’s Australian Open because he wasn’t comfortable with his wife and kids having to quarantine for two weeks at the hotel. However, the soon-to-be 40-year-old has committed to the French Open, a tournament he’s only won once in 2009. He’ll enter the tournament ranked eighth, while top-seeded Nadal, nicknamed “King of Clay,” goes for his 14th French Open title.

So far this year Federer has only won one match, in Qatar in March, before losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in the quarterfinals. His only other tune-up before the French Open will be the Geneva Open in his native Switzerland. 

“I will do everything I can to get back to the top after my surgery and the long pause due to that,” Federer reportedly told Schweizer Familie.

“As long as I am happy and healthy I will continue to play.”

Federer is hardly the favorite to win at Roland Garros. That perennial distinction always goes to Nadal. Djokovic, last year’s runner-up, is suspected to be a top performer and the same goes for Dominic Thiem, who lost in the final to Nadal in 2018 and 2019. 

Serena Williams’ pursuit of 24

Last year’s French Open was also missing a top performer on the women’s side. Serena Williams withdrew from Roland Garros in 2020 due to an Achilles injury. She has returned and is also eyeing a grand slam record as she’s one shy of Margaret Court’s 24.

In late April, she arrived in France to work with coach Patrick Mouratoglou on the clay surface. 

“Clearly she came back to tennis to win some other grand slams, so that’s for sure the goal,” Mouratoglou said at a press conference at the Australian Open in April.

“Now she’s not as obsessed with the 24 (as) most of the people in the tennis world, but definitely she wants to win grand slams. That’s the only reason why she came back to tennis.”

Williams has won the French Open three times, most recently in 2015. Her last grand slam win came in 2017 at the Australian Open and while she has dominated the women’s circuit for a long time, some new challengers stand in her way. Naomi Osaka, who beat Williams at the Australian Open in February en route to her fourth grand slam title, is ranked second in the Women’s Tennis Association. She has, however, struggled on the clay court in the past and never made it past the round of 32 at Roland Garros. 

Others expected to contend for the title are Simona Halep, the 2018 French Open winner ranked third in the world, and top-ranked Ashleigh Barty, who won in 2019.

What to expect in 2021

Last year’s scene was one of the strangest at Roland Garros since H. Briggs won the inaugural French Open in 1891. This year will still be impacted by COVID-19 but should also be somewhat back to normal with a couple of familiar faces and more fans in the stands. 

Will the return of sports normalcy add to a list of vintage French Open memories?