The 2021 French Open begins from Sunday. (Getty Images) Exclusive
The 2021 French Open begins from Sunday. (Getty Images)

French Open: What to expect at the Grand Slam this year

  • From Roger Federer turning up to Naomi Osaka choosing to get fined over speaking to the press, from historic night sessions to health passes for fans, the 2021 Roland Garros starting on Sunday is set to witness a few firsts and some unprecedented sights.
By Rutvick Mehta, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON MAY 28, 2021 09:16 PM IST

What’s new in Paris?

From Roger Federer turning up to Naomi Osaka choosing to get fined over speaking to the press, from historic night sessions to health passes for fans, the 2021 Roland Garros starting on Sunday is set to witness a few firsts and some unprecedented sights:

Roger’s Tour de France

When was the last time Roger Federer entered a Grand Slam being absolutely certain about not winning it? “I'm not so sure in the last 50 years at the French Open, somebody just rocked up at 40-years-old, being out for a year and a half and just go on to just win everything straight,” Federer said a few days ago. He may just have a point, especially so if the man has lost two of the three matches (including the lone one on clay) since returning after a year off from multiple knee surgeries. Why, then, is Federer playing a Slam that he hasn’t since 2019 and on his least preferred and productive surface? For precious competitive minutes on court before he moves on to his favourite leg of the season: grass and Wimbledon. Paris - and his fans - wouldn’t complain if he did indeed make his way deep into the second week.

Rafa: Man of Steel

If one Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros wasn’t intimidating enough for his rivals over the years, there’s now another more daunting Rafa, permanently residing inside the premises. The new Nadal statue has been built by Spanish sculptor Jordi Diez Fernandez using stainless steel and the structure stands three metres tall, around five metres wide and two metres deep and was unveiled by Nadal himself on Thursday. The statue is frozen at the point where the 13-time French Open champion plays a trademark forehand -- mid-air and off the dirt -- with a whiplashing racquet to boot.

Midnight in Paris?

The French Open is also taking the plunge into the dark. For the first-time ever this year, the clay-court Grand Slam will join the US Open and the Australian Open in having night sessions. It is a key breakaway from tradition, with Wimbledon now being the only Grand Slam to not have separate day and night sessions of play. This year in Paris, 10 night sessions are scheduled on Court Philippe-Chatrier, starting from the first Monday and all the way until the quarter-finals next week. Since France has a 9pm curfew until June 8, nine of those 10 sessions will be played behind closed doors. On June 9, however, when the curfew is pushed to 11pm, up to 5000 spectators can catch the men's quarter-final at night, which will start an hour earlier to accommodate the fans and curfew protocols.

“Health pass”, please

Fans will be back in greater volume after a meagre trickling of up to 1,000 at the 2020 Roland Garros in September-October. It was precisely why the organisers postponed the start of the tournament by a week as the French government gradually eases lockdown restrictions. From May 30 to June 8, up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed in each of the main courts, while the side courts can be filled up to 35 percent of their capacity. From June 9 onwards, show courts Philippe-Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen can host 5,000 people, while the capacity in smaller courts will be raised to 65 per cent. But fans will be permitted entry into the stadium only after showing a “health pass”. What is that? Either a negative Covid-19 test certificate or proof of vaccination.

All walk, no talk

Naomi Osaka announced before the start of the tournament that she will not participate in any of the press conferences before and after her matches, saying she won’t subject herself "to people that doubt me" and likening the situation to "kicking a person while they're down". Top tennis pros have, at times, avoided media duties in the past after crushing losses - like Novak Djokovic did after his US Open default last year - but not for the entirety of a tournament. Grand Slam rules mandate for players to attend press conferences, and failure to do so could lead to a maximum fine of $20,000 for each interaction. Osaka signed off her social media post by saying that she hoped her fine would go towards a mental health charity. The tournament organisers have criticised Osaka, while Djokovic said that speaking to the press is "part of the sport and part of your life on the tour". Nadal respected Osaka's choice but added that without the media, they won't be the athletes that they are today, while top-ranked Ash Barty said they know what they sign up for as professional tennis players.

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