PARIS — As the French Open slogs along through the wet and muddied clay courts after a rainy first 10 days, a new opponent has been created for those remaining in the draw. The schedule.
Should Serena Williams want to tie Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 major titles, the world No. 1 will be forced to be play four matches over four days. And should Novak Djokovic, the men’s top seed, want to finally complete the career Grand Slam, the Serbian might have to play four five-set matches over five days.
That’s all to say if the tournament can still finish on time.
Rain interrupted most of play on Tuesday following the tournament’s first complete washout in 16 years on Monday. Williams, Djokovic and the 14 other respective players in the top halves of the men’s and women’s draws have yet to complete their fourth-round matches, matches that were supposed to have taken place on Sunday or Monday.
That means they’ll get them finished on Wednesday at the earliest, creating a schedule which is most daunting for the men, who play best-of-five set matches only at the Grand Slams (and Davis Cup), not at their regular-season events on the ATP World Tour.
“It’s going to be more important to be fit,” said former world No. 1 and 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya. “Fitness is part of the game. The fitter you are, the more chances you have to win.”
It’s an unprecedented ask: Grueling, clay-court tennis (known as the most physically-demanding in an already physical sport), played over the best-of-five format and in five days. Tournament officials have used the backlog to plead with the French court system and politicians to build a roof here, a plan which has been met with local resistance as part of an expansion project. The earliest a roof could be finished is 2020.
“In the U.S. Open one year I saw four days of no play because of rain,” Moya recalled. “What I’ve seen here these 10 days I’ve never seen in Paris. On Monday when they cancelled at 1:30 p.m., I’ve never seen that before.”
Wednesday’s forecast looks promising, with only spots of rain in the late morning. Thursday, Friday and Sunday continue to have rain in the forecast as well, however, in a week in which the sun hasn’t shone its face over Paris for days. Tournament organizers cancelled remaining matches Tuesday just shy of 7 p.m. local time, a consistent grey hanging over Court Philippe Chatrier, the sky spitting down.
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, a three-time champion here, said it’s not just about fitness for players at this juncture, it’s about mental strength, too.
“It’s about who controls their emotions off the court and doesn’t waste their energy,” said the Spaniard at a WTA Finals event Tuesday morning, rain falling outside. “They have to be focused and 100 percent put their energy into their matches. Serena has always done well in these cases because she’s been there so many times before.”
Williams is scheduled to play Wednesday at 11 a.m. on Chatrier against No. 18 seed Elina Svitolina. She last played on Saturday afternoon, as did sister Venus and No. 15 seed Madison Keys, another American.
Djokovic leads Roberto Bautista Agut 3-6, 6-4, 4-1 after the two went on and off the court twice on Tuesday. At one point the 29-year-old Djokovic borrowed a fan’s umbrella and walked about the court with it, smiling and joking with the crowd. But the test he faces in the amount of tennis he still needs to play here is rather serious.
Tournament officials now must start to look at an alternative plan to give the men rest should they need it, though on Monday tournament director Guy Forget said the plan was still to finish on time: Women’s final on Saturday and men’s final on Sunday.
“I'm not going to lie to you and say, ‘Oh, it's going to be great, everything's fine,’” Forget said. “There are still reasons to be optimistic, and we are. You know, players in the past have had these issues many, many times. We talk about Grand Slams and of course the other three slams now have a roof, but most of the ATP events throughout the year are played outdoors, and the players, you know, are faced with these bad weather things and have to go back to the locker room and wait and wait and wait.”
The U.S. Open finished a day late four consecutive years, from 2008 to 2012, but no tournament has been pushed this far back this late in the event since Wimbledon in 2007. That year, Rafael Nadal needed four days (and five sets) to beat Robin Soderling in the third round, which finished on Wednesday. Nadal would play four more days in a row, losing to Roger Federer in the final.
The roof made its debut over Centre Court at Wimbledon two years later.
“It’s starting to become a problem,” said former player Barbara Schett, a Eurosport TV commentator. “I hope this is a wake-up call to get a roof. We can’t wait until 2020. It’s unfair to the players. This changes the whole outcome of the tournament. It’s certainly concerning.”
But how many five-set matches can the men play on back-to-back days? This is no Wimbledon, where the grass is slick and the points are usually rather short.
“It’s hard to say,” said Moya, who now coaches Milos Raonic. “Two matches [in a row], I think. ... What happens if it rains until Saturday and they have to play three in a row? I don’t know. We’ll have to see what happens.”
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