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By David Zakhodin
Despite the aura of excitement that surrounded the French Open final when Novak Djokovic captured his elusive Roland Garros title to complete the career Grand Slam, this past fortnight in Paris did not feel like it featured a premier tennis event. When looking forward to watching the world’s top players, we tennis fans usually think of the four Grand Slams as the pillars of the collective pleasure we obtain from watching our favorite players compete at the highest level. However, these past several years the French Open has failed to hold up its end of the bargain in terms of creating excitement and drama. While the lack of energy at Roland Garros can be pinned on a variety of factors, the bulk of the blame begins with a series of poor decisions made by the French Federation of Tennis.
In order to analyze the state of incompetence surrounding Roland Garros, we must begin by highlighting what has been already discussed extensively in the tennis world. For several years now the French Federation of Tennis (which we will from now on call FFT) has pondered the idea of either moving the tournament to a new venue in Paris or putting a roof on Court Philippe Chatrier as a part of a whole renovation process. While the latter proposal has been avidly condemned by residents of Boulogne, the neighborhood in which Roland Garros is located, there has also been a lack of enthusiasm or capital to begin the process of relocating the tournament to another venue. So now the FFT is stuck in an inconvenient arrondissement of Paris with a tournament venue that is the smallest of the four Slams and has limited potential for innovation. Since they’re unwilling to expediently invest in new facilities (there are vague plans in place for 2020), perhaps the organizers of the tournament define innovation as opening a new Snapchat account this year and using clever emoticons on player’s faces to entertain their mobile fans.
Having already identified the French Open’s lack of desire to rapidly improve, let’s examine arguably the most culpable group of all: the fans. In the speech following any championship match, the finalists of a tournament always proclaim how much they appreciate the fans and say how without them, the tournament would not be possible. At the French Open, we are clearly seeing the tournament go forward this year without the help of fans. First, it began with the event’s first day when defending champion Stan Wawrinka took the court for a compelling five set match against the feisty Lukas Rosol. A murky day filled with rain delays made the absence of fans in nosebleed seats permissible, but the most disgraceful image was the empty Presidents’ Box (the set of black colored seats in the lowest section behind the player on the far end of the court) that includes seats reserved for FFT dignitaries. If I recall correctly, never have I seen the Royal Box at Wimbledon empty when the defending champion has played his opening match. At Roland Garros, there was nearly no one. If the people to whom the tournament belongs aren’t going to show any enthusiasm for the product they are putting out, what sort of message does it send to the fans who paid ridiculous prices to get those seats?
While the narrative is trending toward fans being at fault for the incompetence at Roland Garros, evidence has shown otherwise. Over the course of the French Open’s history, the French public has often been depicted as extremely critical of players and sometimes extremely unkind. Say what you want about the crowd, but it was their attitude that always brought a special signature to the epic matches that have taken place on Court Philippe Chatrier. However, this signature quality may also be the French crowd’s biggest flaw, its cynicism. If the French public has overtly been criticized for failing to embrace a legend in nine-time champion Rafael Nadal who showed them his love by burying himself in clay after every victory, why would they inconvenience themselves and come watch the one-time champion Stan Wawrinka on a typical rainy day in Paris?
This brings us to the next issue that has plagued the French Open: miserable weather. However, we have an example of three other Majors who have many a time been delayed by rain. The Australian Open was the first to act and now has three stadiums covered by retractable roofs. The U.S. Open had to play the men’s championship on a Monday for five consecutive years due to weather delays, and now they are in the process of installing a retractable roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium. But Wimbledon, I bet the FFT thought that never in a million years would the All England Club, the epitome of old school tradition, invest an unreasonable amount of money to address something as unpredictable as the weather. Yet they did. Not only has the roof at Wimbledon allowed play to continue in the gloomy London summer, but it has also created an atmosphere in which matches can continue past twilight. They were proactive and prudent; Jean Gachassin, the FFT president, was too busy talking on the phone mid match during Sunday’s final and upgrading to an ugly shaped podium for trophy ceremonies.
In conjunction with the lack of innovation and proactivity at Roland Garros, the previously mentioned twilight remains an issue for the tournament year after year. Even though some may argue that the threat of darkness enhances the drama and quality of a match (e.g. Nadal vs Djokovic 2012), we get too many extreme cases of the tournament being delayed the following day as a result of bad weather and matches postponed due to darkness. Additionally, this builds unnecessary angst in players who often complain about the rescheduling of postponed matches as well as poor court conditions through which they are forced to play through a drizzle due to the tournament being behind schedule. I’m not saying this isn’t a problem at Wimbledon, the other major that does not sport a night session, but the darkness issue is magnified at Roland Garros where there is neither a roof nor light to protect certain matches from the elements.
For years now all of these combined external factors have begun to build a grey cloud over the French Open, and for the first time it seems that the cloud is seeping through our television and affecting the experience of us viewers. Believe it or not, it’s difficult to get pumped for a quarterfinal match between Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych when there is nearly no one in the stands for the first set and a half, and the weather is once again damp and reminiscent of a typical rainy day in Paris. In fact, in just this year’s French Open there has already been one full washout day (the first of its kind in sixteen years) and two days where tennis was played for little more than several hours.
Ultimately, despite all the negative vibes surrounding the season’s second Grand Slam, there is one entity that has the power to enhance our experience in a way that may supersede all of the tournament’s other shortcomings: the media. Just as we’ve seen the media elevate Donald Trump to a presidential candidacy in this country, we’ve seen the media turn sport into a paramount part of our daily lives. However, with the French Open, nothing could be further from the truth. The source of the problem is a dumbfounding tug of war battle between ESPN, TennisChannel, and NBC for majority television rights of the tournament. First, there’s NBC who has consistently televised the final with the intention of building a championship sports network. Props to NBC for having a stronghold on the second weekend of the tournament, but to allow them to have multiple days of coverage (including a men’s semifinal match) where the match is only shown live on the east coast is a terrible experience for viewers on the other side of the country who want to watch live or on DVR. Then, there’s TennisChannel which has lost virtually all of its live match coverage at the other slams and is desperately clinging on to Roland Garros for pride purposes. Well, here’s an idea Tennis Channel: if you want to televise the French Open live, spend more money to beat out the other networks and spend less on Bill Macatee’s failed French Open Tonight show (which has since been cancelled). And for ESPN it’s very simple; if they’re not going to outspend FOX for the rights to televise Big Ten College Football or U.S. Open Golf, then maybe they ought to buy first to last ball coverage of the French Open from NBC and TennisChannel. We’ve seen how successful ESPN has been televising the other three majors for a whole fortnight; there’s no reason they wouldn’t be able to do the same in Paris while simultaneously making something out of nothing in terms of the current viewer experience. The platform is there, but it’s difficult to make use of it when ESPN3 doesn’t televise the outside courts or when ESPN only has a coverage window of three hours at a time when most of us are still asleep. Because these three media conglomerates would rather cut their own costs than swallow their pride and come to a contractual conclusion for finding an optimal way to televise the tournament, French Open coverage will continue to be ragged. Thus, disenchanted viewers will have nothing to keep them in front of the TV whereas the hardcore fans will watch in misery. And if the lack of coherence in American television wasn’t enough to detract the French Open, then look no further than French television who on this Sunday’s final assigned journalist Nelson Monfort to interview Murray’s camp during the match. Not only is such an interview inappropriate during the championship match (usually happens in earlier rounds), but it caused such a stir that Murray yelled and complained to the chair umpire in between points about Monfort’s presence in his box.
If a combination of poor location, arrogant fans, bad weather, and disappointing media coverage weren’t enough to drag the French Open into the dirt (pun intended), then here are two final examples as to why the FFT is the worst run tennis organization (and that’s saying something considering the USTA is in play). The French Open does this idiotic scheduling where they have both men’s and women’s quarterfinals, on their respective day, playing simultaneously on Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen. In 2012, I came back from school and had to switch channels back and forth (ESPN3 had been shut off at this junction of the tournament) between two five set marathons featuring Djokovic vs. Tsonga and Federer vs. Del Potro. Why the FFT would schedule two primetime matches featuring the best players in the world at the same time when there was an opportunity to attract more fans had the matches been played at different times is beyond me.
Lastly, perhaps you the optimistic reader may be telling yourself that the FFT has a lot of room for improvement considering its current inadequacies. However, let us not forget that this is an organization whose internal controls are so bad that they allowed two security threats to take place on Court Philippe Chatrier within the span of four years. First, it allowed a clown on the court to not only threaten Roger Federer in the 2009 final but to also run across the net without being taken down for over fifteen seconds. And if that wasn’t bad enough, then recall the 2013 final when a protester with a flare got onto the court and came within several yards of Rafael Nadal. Seeing these perfect examples of an inability to secure the event is a final summation of the incompetence revolving around Roland Garros and why this tournament is light years behind the other Slams in nearly all categories. Several months ago Novak Djokovic proclaimed that the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells had merit to be elevated to a level higher than the Masters series events because of its well-run organization and prestige. It definitely has enough merit to replace the French Open as the fourth Slam at this point.
Perhaps the saddest part of this whole Roland Garros conundrum is that the tournament has always been defined by the passion of the fans and by historical moments. If this year’s men’s final is not enough evidence, then recall the 2009 final when Roger Federer cemented his status as the most decorated player in history by completing the Career Slam and tying Pete Sampras’ record fourteen Grand Slam titles. Or the 1999 final when Andre Agassi completed his own Career Slam after a remarkable five set comeback against Andriy Medvedev. And the 1989 tournament when teenager Michael Chang improbably won with remarkable five set victories over legends Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg. Over the course of every decade this event has been able to rewrite the history books of tennis, and its clay court surface has fostered a high level of physical and mental battle that only the toughest of champions have been able to withstand. Unfortunately, the best features of this tournament are now infected with incompetence on all levels. So for the sake of Roland Garros and the entire tennis community, now more than ever, we need the French Open to become great again.