PARIS – Perhaps 10 years ago, over a late dinner at La Porte d’Auteuil after a long day of covering matches at Roland Garros, I remember agreeing with Philippe Bouin, the major French tennis writer for L’Équipe, that the French Open If you have ever decided to compete in other Grand Slam tournaments and host night sessions, it would be the right time to pursue other pursuits rather than making stories long after midnight and every chance of one Missing the last bistro meal.
There are certainly bigger problems in tennis, but Bouin more or less kept his word and retired well before the 2021 French Open instituted its “sessions de nuit” stadium, when Tuesday became Wednesday and May became June, when Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in his rousing quarterfinals at 1:15
That’s where I was when I left Roland Garros a few hours later and – with no public transport – watched a few French fans still trying to hail a taxi or book a ride, but to no avail.
Night sessions undoubtedly have their advantages in tennis: electrifying atmosphere, prime-time coverage (depending on your time zone) and the opportunity for fans who work during the day to attend in person.
But the new night sessions at Roland Garros, created primarily to boost profits for an event that lags other Grand Slam events in revenue from domestic television, also had many downsides. This is mainly because the French have decided to go their own way by only scheduling one game in this slot instead of two as is usual in other Grand Slam events.
Guy Forget, the former French Open Tournament Director who was involved in the decision, said it was done “so games wouldn’t end at 3am”.
Wimbledon remains a no-no for night sessions (the grass gets even more slippery after the sun goes down). But the US Open and 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 nights including a Lleyton Hewitt win over Marcos Baghdatis at the 2008 Australian Open, which ended at 4:34 (It was quite a sunrise on the way back to the hotel.)
The French Open approach has been problematic in terms of value for money – is a blowout in the cold, like Marin Cilic’s loss to Daniil Medvedev, worth well over €100 a ticket?
It was also problematic for gender equality. The 10 night sessions of Roland Garros this year saw only one women’s game: France’s Alizé Cornet defeating Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko. The same ratio was last year when the tournament debuted the Night Sessions, nine nights out of 10 without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Inequality has continued, although Amélie Mauresmo, a former WTA no. 1 from France, who is the new Tournament Director of the French Open. Pressed on the issue on Wednesday, the morning after the Nadal-Djokovic clash, Mauresmo revealed clumsy footwork and said that as a woman and a “former player” she “doesn’t feel bad or unfair to say that now” was the men’s game generally more attractive and engaging than the women’s game.
Mauresmo said that after the draw was announced, her goal was to find women’s games to slot into that night’s flagship slot. But she said she struggled to find the marquee matchups and star power she was looking for. Women’s games are also typically shorter with a best-of-three set format compared to men’s best-of-five.
“I admit it was tough,” she said. “It was difficult, as you say, to find the match of the day for more than one night,” she said, sounding a little apologetic.
Iga Swiatek, the 21-year-old Polish star, was not given a night call despite being the new No. 1 and former French Open champion.
“It’s a bit disappointing and surprising,” Swiatek said of Mauresmo’s comments after she continued her winning streak to 33 singles games on Wednesday with a 6-3, 6-2 win over American Jessica Pegula. She added that most players find it more convenient to compete during the day, “but I definitely want to entertain and show my best tennis in every game.”
In a text message, Steve Simon, the WTA boss, expressed his disapproval with the nightly schedule and the fact that women’s matches were usually selected as the opening match at the two main venues during the daytime sessions: a time slot when crowds and attendances are often smaller .
“The generation and depth of talent that we’re 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 premium slots. There is certainly room for improvement and if we are to increase the value of our combined product then a balanced game plan is critical to paving the way.”
The WTA lacked superstar power at Roland Garros with the surprise retirement of leaders Ashleigh Barty in March, first-round defeats of Naomi Osaka and defending French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, and the continued absences of Serena and Venus Williams who still have to compete this year.
But the one-match night format also made it difficult to feature Swiatek, who at this point wins most of her matches in a hurry. “Playing time is certainly a factor,” Mauresmo said in a text message.
Why not just schedule two games or two women’s games during the night to provide enough entertainment? Because according to Mauresmo, the night session broadcasting contracts from 2021 to 2023 only provide for one game.
“It’s impossible to change that,” Mauresmo said. “But we will still be talking to our partners to consider other ways that ticket holders might be satisfied.”
That sounds like a good idea, as does a start before 8:45 p.m., even with a single game, if the idea is to save players too many late nights and not upset the 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 acquired the night session rights here, has a small footprint compared to the traditional public broadcaster. And yet it should get the marquee match, even if, according to L’Équipe, the contract leaves the French Open organizers the last word.
But there was no doubt about Tuesday’s marquee match and although Amazon Prime exceptionally agreed to give viewers in France free access to its service, the decision to schedule Nadal and Djokovic’s quarter-finals on the night sparked debate and anger.
“I am deeply shocked by the decisions taken by the French Tennis Federation,” Delphine Ernotte, president of France Televisions, told Le Figaro. “This is a blow to our partnership after years of broadcasting and popularizing the event.”
The fact that the tournament’s matchup ended at 1:15 on a weekday certainly didn’t bode well for the spectators in France either. And although the atmosphere in the main stadium was still overwhelming after midnight, there was a price to be paid on the way home.
The French Open organizers have yet to reach an agreement with the Paris authorities to keep public transport running after very late destinations.
The metro was closed, and so were the bistros, as Bouin and I had long feared.