From deafening silence to jubilant chorus and back to silence again.
Roland-Garros came alive on Wednesday, with 5,000 fans packed into Court Philippe Chatrier for the night session, a sense of normalcy that seemingly returned to the tennis world as France began easing its COVID-19 restrictions.
And then reality kicked in again, as Novak Djokovic and Matteo Berrettini walked off the field, the extended 11pm curfew – from 9pm – still not late enough to end the game before the spectators had to leave.
Watching the fans forced to leave and the players ending up in an empty stadium in Paris – much like what Djokovic had experienced at the Australian Open earlier this year – left a sour taste in what had been a celebration until then.
“It’s a shame for the tournament and the public to have the curfew,” said Djokovic, whose 6-3, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 victory over Berrettini set up a semi-final against the 13-year-old. fold champion Rafael Nadal. “We knew before the game. I thought the atmosphere was Davis Cup like, lots of fans involved at every point, cheering, screaming, just electric. I’m glad I had that experience playing in front of the crowd in the night session .”
After nine official nighttime sessions, when the only sounds breaking the silence were a creaking door and the strange stray noise of workers nearby, the 10th and final brought Roland-Garros back to life.
“Pop pop pop pop pop pop, Ole” echoed the familiar chant, a hymn taken from an old bullfighter’s tune, as the crowd whistled and whooped as referee James Keothavong came down from his seat to investigate a controversial decision. .
After months of tournaments with very few or no fans due to the pandemic, 13,146 fans were allowed to enter the grounds on Wednesday, albeit still under strict protocols, wearing masks and either showing proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 result or immune. to be.
Up to 5,000 spectators were allowed into Philippe Chatrier’s main court for what was the last of 10 official nighttime sessions, coming in for the first time this year as part of a new TV deal with Amazon Prime in France.
Although it was only a third of the usual capacity, the fans made up for it by supporting Djokovic and Berrettini.
Tickets for the match were not easy to come by, but many Serbian fans had succeeded, with a large Serbian flag draped at the bottom of the top row of seats as the chant of “Nole, Nole, Nole” permeated the stadium.
The tournament was moved a week from its usual dates to allow for more fans in the final five days, in line with the relaxation of government protocols.
With COVID-19 restrictions eased in Paris from Wednesday, the curfew was moved by two hours, with organizers confident the night session would end on time.
Originally scheduled for an 8pm start – an hour earlier than the previous nine overnight sessions – the run-in time was moved forward by 10 minutes and the match actually started earlier than originally scheduled. However, it was always a risk to leave no more than three hours for a clay court game between two top-10 players.
“I thought the atmosphere was Davis Cup-like, lots of fans involved in every point, cheering, screaming, just electric. I’m glad I had that experience playing in front of the crowd during the night session.” Novak Djokovic
Guy Forget, the French Open tournament director who sat in the stands, said a few days ago that he thought players should wait while fans left the building “terrible for the tournament and the fans”. And here he was, his worst nightmare came true.
At 10:30 p.m., emcee Mark Maury announced that fans would have to leave at any end change, a message that was greeted with booing. Understandably, the fans were not happy, some chanting, “We paid.”
Twenty-five minutes later, with Djokovic leading 3-2 on service in the fourth set, the umpire told the players to leave the field for a while.
The Serb said it was difficult to get going again when they returned 19 minutes later.
“We had a 15-20 minute break and I had a bit of a rest to myself, to regroup, reset and understand what to do,” said Djokovic. “I knew the atmosphere would be completely different, it took us both some time to warm up. When I came back from the break I felt like the better player.”
At the end, after Berrettini’s last backhand went into the net, Djokovic let out a series of roars towards his support group, which reverberated around the arena.
“It was a very stressful match,” he said. “The reaction at the end was liberating for me.”