2021 French Open – COVID-19 curfew spoils Novak Djokovic’s quarterfinal celebration


From a deafening silence to a 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 seemingly returning to the tennis world as France began to relax its COVID-19 restrictions.

And then, reality set in again, as Novak Djokovic and Matteo Berrettini walked off court, the extended 11 p.m. curfew — from 9 p.m. — still not late enough for the match to be finished before the spectators had to go.

Watching the fans be forced to leave and having to see the players finish in an empty stadium– just as Djokovic had experienced at the Australian Open earlier this year — left a sour taste after what had been, until that point, a celebration.

“It’s unfortunate for the tournament and the crowd to have the curfew,” said Djokovic, whose 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory over Berrettini set up a semifinal clash against 13-time champion Rafael Nadal. “We knew it before the match. I thought the atmosphere was Davis Cup-like, a lot of fans involved on every single point, cheering, screaming, just electric. I’m happy I had that experience of playing in front of the crowd in the night session.”

After nine official night sessions when the only sounds that punctuated the silence were a creaky door and the odd stray noise from workers nearby, the 10th and final one brought Roland-Garros to life once more.

“Pop pop pop pop pop pop, Ole” rang out the familiar chant, an anthem taken from an old bullfighter’s tune, while the crowd whistled and jeered when umpire James Keothavong came down from his chair to examine any contentious call.

After months of tournaments with very few, if any, fans, due to the pandemic, 13,146 fans were allowed inside the grounds on Wednesday, albeit still under strict protocols, wearing masks and requiring either evidence of being vaccinated, a negative COVID-19 result or being immune.

A maximum of 5,000 spectators were permitted in the main Court Philippe Chatrier for what was the last of the 10 official night sessions, brought in for the first time this year as part of a new TV deal with Amazon Prime in France.

Even though it was only a third of the usual capacity, the fans made up for it, roaring their support for Djokovic and Berrettini.

Tickets for the match were not easy to come by, but many Serbian fans had managed it, with one big Serbia flag draped at the bottom of the top tier of seats, while the chants of “Nole, Nole, Nole” permeated the stadium.

The tournament was moved back a week from its usual dates to enable more fans to be allowed in for the last five days, fitting in with the relaxation of government protocols.

With COVID-19 restrictions relaxed in Paris from Wednesday, the curfew was moved two hours, with organizers convinced the night session would wrap up in time.

Originally set for an 8 p.m. start — an hour earlier than the previous nine night sessions — the walk-on time was pulled forward by 10 minutes and the match actually got under way earlier than originally scheduled. However, leaving no more than three hours for a clay-court match between two top-10 players was always a risk.

“I thought the atmosphere was Davis Cup-like, a lot of fans involved on every single point, cheering, screaming, just electric. I’m happy I had that experience of playing in front of the crowd in the night session.”

Novak Djokovic

Guy Forget, the French Open’s tournament director who was sitting in the stands, said a few days ago that he felt players having to wait while fans left the building was “horrible for the tournament and the fans.” And here he was, his worst nightmare come true.

At 10.30 p.m., emcee Mark Maury announced that fans would have to leave at each change of ends, a notice that was greeted by boos. Understandably, the fans were not happy, some chanting, “We paid.”

Twenty-five minutes later, with Djokovic leading 3-2 on serve in the fourth set, the umpire told the players they would have to leave the court briefly.

The Serb said it had been hard to get going again when they returned 19 minutes later.

“We had a 15-20 minute break and I had a little calm time by myself, to regroup, reset and understand what I needed to do,” Djokovic said. “I knew the atmosphere was going to be completely different, it took a little bit of time for us booth to warm up. I felt going back from break I was the better player.”

In the end, after Berrettini’s final backhand went into the net, Djokovic let out a series of roars in the direction of his support group, echoing throughout the arena.

“It was a very stressful match,” he said. “The reaction in the end was me liberating.”



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