French Open’s ‘prime-time’ slot is the graveyard shift no player wants | Tumaini Carayol

Estimated read time 5 min read

As another messy, rainy day at Roland Garros began to unfold on Saturday afternoon, it gradually became clear that things were taking a left turn. With certain third-round matches to be finished, the French Open organisers opted to move the uncompleted contest between Zizou Bergs and Grigor Dimitrov to Court Philippe-Chatrier before Novak Djokovic’s night session match, which was scheduled to begin at 8.15pm. Unless every match finished in straight sets, it was obvious that chaos would follow.

It is fair to say that those matches did not finish efficiently. The match on court, Alexander Zverev v Tallon Griekspoor, immediately descended into a dramatic five-set battle. Then Bergs forced a fourth set. Djokovic and Lorenzo Musetti entered the court at about 10.30pm, with Djokovic closing off his excellent five-set comeback victory at 3.07am, the latest finish in the history of the French Open.

No other prominent sport in the world has its athletes competing in the early hours of the morning, yet tennis has managed to make it a regular occurrence. In recent years, matches have finished as late as 4.05am at the Australian Open with Andy Murray last year and 4.55am at the Mexican Open in 2022.

“I think it’s really unhealthy,” Ons Jabeur, the world No 9, said. “I hope Novak is recovering really well for the next one. But yeah, we are trying to push to have better scheduling. But, you know, when you have long matches sometimes you don’t know. Obviously with the prime matches it is also more difficult. I feel like 8.15 is really late to start the match.”

At about 1am, Casper Ruud closed off his four-set win over Tomás Martín Etcheverry before addressing the Court Suzanne-Lenglen crowd with a smile: “I love tennis and I love Roland Garros,” he said. “But I’m not sure if I love playing at 1am.” Ruud was still going through his post-match routine and talking about it on X as Djokovic’s match came to an end. For the players, the work does not stop as they leave the court.

“I feel like a lot of times people think you’re done, but really, 3am, then you have press and then you have to shower, eat and then a lot of times people do treatments, so that’s probably not going to bed until 5am at the earliest, maybe 6am, and even 7am,” Coco Gauff said. “I definitely think it’s not healthy. It may not be fair for those who have to play late because it does ruin your schedule.”

Casper RuudView image in fullscreen

While the French Open used to receive criticism for its early finishes with no floodlights, nights at Roland Garros have now swung to completely different extremes since the roof was inaugurated on Philippe-Chatrier in 2021. In some ways, things are even worse.

With the arrival of the roof on Court Philippe-Chatrier and floodlights around the grounds, the French Open initiated its controversial night session, selling the rights of one prime-time match per day to Prime Video for a hefty fee as the tournament searched for new sources of income to transform the grounds. The tournament had previously been carried entirely by France Télévisions, the free-to-air national broadcaster.

Despite how the night contests have been billed as the feature match each day – and the French Tennis Federation has received significant criticism for not scheduling a single women’s match in the night session so far this year – it often seems that players are in a race to avoid receiving the graveyard slot. Both Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek have repeatedly requested earlier matches. Carlos Alcaraz also categorically expressed his disapproval for the night session.

“It’s really difficult to recover when you are going to go to sleep so, so late,” he said. “For me it’s much better to finish at 6pm, having dinner really, really well at restaurant, a good restaurant, good food. So everything is better if you finish early.”

skip past newsletter promotion

Those criticisms don’t even take into account the actual conditions. At the Australian and US Opens, the nights are warm. The cold conditions in Paris, though, make the clay courts even slower, the ball barely moving through the cold air. For much of Saturday’s match, Djokovic struggled to hit through Musetti’s excellent defence in conditions that resembled quicksand.

These night sessions are also extremely difficult for all the other people involved in the sport. Fans should not need to make such a commitment for the sake of entertainment. The ballkids, many of whom are minors, and the linespeople should be able to return to their homes at an acceptable time. After midnight, there are few transport options for anyone leaving the site.

What is clear is that the scheduling committees at tournaments need to be more flexible, more willing to move matches, to impose clear limits on when matches can begin and to change start times. The ATP and WTA tours have attempted to address the issue at their own non-slam events this year, initiating new match scheduling rules that include (three-set) matches not being allowed to start after 11pm and matches at 10.30pm requiring a move to an alternative court. It remains to be seen how effective they will be.

Such is the unpredictable nature of professional tennis, a day after constant delays and an early morning finish, Sunday’s three-match day session was shorter than Djokovic’s match alone. By 4.31pm, the planned day session schedule was complete.


You May Also Like

More From Author