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The French Open Will Probably Finish. But This Tournament Has Not Been Normal.


PARIS — The 12-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal typically refuels after a late-night match with a meal built around a piece of fish. He’ll eat with members of his family or support staff at one of his favorite restaurants that remains open to accommodate him or avail himself of his hotel’s round-the-clock, in-room dining service.

But other than Nadal’s advancement to the final weekend, little about this year’s tournament is normal. Consider his nourishment after he dispatched Jannik Sinner of Italy in a quarterfinal that started late, took nearly three hours and ended at half-past 1 a.m. Paris time: two protein shakes and two energy bars that he foraged from the players’ facilities at Roland Garros.

Bon appétit and pass the tinned anchovies?

The 124th edition of the French Open was postponed four months by the coronavirus pandemic and will end this weekend just as it began, with infection rates rising faster than bread dough in France. The controlled environment constructed by tournament officials to keep the participants safe is holding — but barely.

On Wednesday, the host country reported 18,746 new cases. That same day, the men’s No. 11 seed, David Goffin, who lost in the first round to Sinner, announced on Instagram that he had become the latest of a handful of participants to test positive for the virus.

The spike in infections in and around Paris led local government officials to place the city on maximum alert starting Tuesday, leading to the closure of all bars and gyms in the city. Restaurants have been allowed to stay open but with stricter health protocols, including social distancing, contact tracing and a closing time no later than 10 p.m. — or roughly 30 minutes before Nadal took the court against Sinner.

“It’s hard to see these things unfold again after six months,” the men’s world No. 1 singles player, Novak Djokovic, said, alluding to the first lockdown, which lasted eight weeks in most of France. “It’s hard to believe that we’re going to go through that again.”

In the 16th arrondissement around Roland Garros, the streetlights still come on at night, but they cast a funereal glow on the mostly empty sidewalks. Like the free doggy waste bag dispensers poised over sidewalks freckled with dog droppings, inconsistencies abound.

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Less than a mile from the courts, young students have their temperatures taken at a Montessori school before they are allowed to enter. But those same children can hop on a colorful jumper horse on a nearby single-decker carousel that is not sanitized by the operator between rides.

At the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel, the top players and their teams mix with outside guests that on Wednesday included a family of four whose return from Disneyland Paris put them in the path of Nadal, who was departing for practice.

ImageAt the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel, fans wait for players as they come and go from the tournament and there is little separation between the public and the athletes.
Credit…The New York Times

At the on-site restaurant frequented by the guests not associated with the tournament, the staff took down diners’ information for contact tracing at dinner on Wednesday, as required, but not at breakfast on Thursday.

You never know with whom you might be sharing an elevator, the kind with an eight-person capacity that fit four adults uncomfortably — and where they have been. Players and their designated team members had to submit to multiple swab tests, with a positive test leading to a player’s instant disqualification. Given all the variables in the controlled environment, the tests could feel less like a protocol than a crapshoot.

“There is a little bit out of our control,” Andrew Bettles, who coaches Elina Svitolina, conceded. “So, yes, it does worry you a bit.”

“I think you’ve got to do everything you can,” Bettles added, referring to staying virus-free, “and then get a little bit of luck along the way.”

Nadal’s father, mother, sister and wife are in town to watch him play, but they are staying at a separate hotel because they are not part of his designated team, which includes his two coaches and physiotherapist. They have intentionally maintained their distance, making little more than eye contact with him before and after his matches.

When they failed to show up to watch one of his practices, Nadal sent a text jokingly asking if they had forsaken him. No, they replied. They were intent on doing everything in their power to protect the sanctity of his bubble. With Nadal chasing a 20th Grand Slam singles title, which would equal the career men’s mark held by Roger Federer, his loved ones would rather keep a safe distance than be sorry.

The weather throughout the tournament has been cold and rainy, conditions that settle into one’s bones like winter. It is the perfect incubator for influenza, but in the prevailing climate, one cough can send chills through a room.

When the United States Open finalist Alexander Zverev lost in the fourth round while playing with what he later described as a 100-degree fever, coronavirus was the invisible contagion in the room. Such was the frenzied response to his mention of his temperature, Zverev made public his next coronavirus test result, which was negative, as soon as he received it.

The acute focus on the health of the players — instead of the haleness of their games — frustrated the American Danielle Collins, who dismissed questions about her physical well-being as “frivolous” after she was seen blowing her nose repeatedly during changeovers in her fourth-round victory.

“I think one of the best things about sports is that people get to watch sports,” said Collins, whose tournament run ended in the quarterfinals.

She continued: “They get to engage in something that’s not Covid-related, not political. I’m not going to comment any further on anything going on in terms of the bubble or Covid protocols or what’s going on in Paris. I think that this event brings a lot of positivity to players’ lives, to people’s lives watching, and I would really just like to focus on the great tennis that’s being played here.”

The French can exasperate with their pas possible attitude toward the most mundane tasks. But the players have heaped praise upon the tournament organizers, led by the French Tennis Federation, for their fortitude in going forth with the year’s last major after Wimbledon was canceled. After a second wave of the virus caused the late curtailing of fans to a maximum of 1,000. After the city was placed on maximum alert.

And after the announcement on Tuesday that a men’s and women’s event in New Zealand ahead of the next scheduled major, the 2021 Australian Open, was canceled because of organizational difficulties associated with the pandemic.

“In these moments, it’s not easy to have the opportunity to play a tournament,” the Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta said. “We don’t know if the rest of the tournaments, they are going to make it.”

The players’ good fortune was driven home to Djokovic, the 2016 French Open champion who dispatched Carreño Busta in the quarterfinals, when the man who ferries him back and forth between the courts and the hotel told him he had one day of work in the last seven months before the French Open began.

“I’m just hoping that people will be able to stay mentally sane, because we have an opportunity to work and earn money, do what we love,” Djokovic said. “But majority of the people doesn’t have that opportunity.”

If Djokovic and Nadal both win their semifinals on Friday, they will meet in the championship, which would be a familiar landmark of a final to dock a shipwrecked year.



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