As the French Open Begins, Confusion and Fears About Coronavirus Dominate

The sports world’s dance with coronavirus lands in Paris this weekend, at the French Open.

Rafael Nadal will be gunning for a record 13th men’s singles title at Roland Garros, which has become a fresh test of how close life can get to normal without sparking another cluster of cases that would force French authorities to turn back to the hammer of a lockdown.

This tournament, which begins Sunday and ends Oct. 11, makes its home in a city where residents spent the past months enjoying some semblance of their pre-pandemic lives — long afternoons and evenings at cafes, access to many of the world’s best known museums, and students attending schools in person. Given that, French Open organizers wanted to make their event more lenient than the recently completed United States Open, where players remained largely isolated and closely watched, and ticket-buying spectators were prohibited.

But with cases of coronavirus spiking, French government officials have reintroduced strict limits on the size of gatherings, cutting by 90 percent the number of spectators that will be allowed at the tournament.

“Nobody likes to play in these conditions,” Nadal said Friday, acknowledging the efforts that tournament organizers have made. “It is not easy.”

Credit…Martin Sidorjak/Getty Images

On Friday, Paris was far quieter than it normally would be on an early fall afternoon, even one as dreary and cold, with intermittent showers. No one blamed the quiet on the weather. At Angelina Paris, a popular patisserie, a server said business was off by half, because “more than 50 percent of our business is tourists and there are no tourists right now.”

Hotels are at a fraction of their occupancy. At Le Congrès Auteuil, a popular dining spot near the tournament’s grounds, a bored server was draped over the bar like a tea towel. Just a few tables were occupied at the restaurant, which seats 150.

“Fingers crossed that the coronavirus situation improves,” said Laurent Jouannigot, the manager. “That’s all we can do is hope that it gets better in two or three weeks.”

By then, the tournament will be over. For now, there is also mounting frustration among players about testing and other protocols for players and those working at the tournament, as well as policies for spectators.

“To be honest, it makes me a little nervous,” said Victoria Azarenka, a singles finalist at the United States Open. “I don’t necessarily know how I feel about it.”

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French tennis officials have been formulating and reformulating plans for months. In March, they rankled nerves throughout the sport by announcing plans to postpone the tournament from its traditional time slot in late May and early June without consulting the other tennis governing bodies or the professional tours.

It has not helped that tennis officials keep shifting regulations and strategies for dealing with the pandemic

, leaving players to figure out a new set of rules each week depending on where they play, despite ongoing communication between tournament organizers in New York and Paris about what works and what does not. Already, organizers have eliminated at least seven players and a coach, including Fernando Verdasco of Spain, for either testing positive or being exposed to a coach who did. That coach tested positive for the coronavirus even though he had recovered from Covid-19 months ago. Traces of the virus remained in his system.

In a letter to players on Thursday, Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which represents the men’s players and numerous tournaments, acknowledged the complications.

“Unfortunately this is our reality today under Covid-19, and while it is far from perfect, we must take a big-picture view that this is what it takes to bring our sport back,” Gaudenzi wrote.

The prospect of spectators attending the tournament has been its own dance. The French Tennis Federation wanted to allow 11,500 fans per day. But it had to reduce that at least twice, and now just 1,000 fans are expected each day at Roland Garros, the jewel box facility in western Paris that hosts the Grand Slam event. Organizers hope they can give an energy boost that was clearly lacking at the U.S. Open.

Credit…Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock

The differences between how players are living in Paris and their stay in the United States, where most players in the U.S. Open spent as many as four weeks isolated in a Long Island hotel, are stark.

Players were tested upon their arrival in Paris, just as they were when they arrived in New York, but the similarities mostly ended there, even with the test itself, which involves a deep probe of the nasal passage in Paris that potentially could produce more positive results compared with a less invasive swab in New York.

The French federation did not make Dr. Bernard Montalvan, its chief medical officer, available to The New York Times for an interview. But in an interview with L’Équipe last week, Montalvan said the less invasive testing procedure was too ineffective. Medical officials in the United States have said research showed test results for the two procedures are similar.

In New York, players received a second test 48 hours after their first and then every fourth day. In Paris, they receive a test 72 hours after their first negative result and then every fifth day.

In New York, players and their coaches were largely isolated in one hotel. The athletes were permitted to rent a private home but could not leave them except to play and train. In Paris, all the players must stay in two hotels, which they are sharing with members of the public, though the players and their entourages are on separate floors from people not associated with the tournament. Even players who own homes in Paris, including Serena Williams and several French players, must stay in the hotels.

In New York, players were subject to contact tracing through radio frequency identification technology.

In Paris, players are merely encouraged to take personal responsibility and respect social distancing guidelines but there are not strict rules on where they can venture or eat.

“It is impossible to put a bubble around a tennis player,” Montalvan said in the interview with L’Équipe.

That was certainly true of the French tennis players who traveled for the tournaments in New York.

Benoit Paire, the French veteran known for both his smooth groundstrokes and active social life, tested positive just ahead of the U.S. Open. Paire, currently ranked No. 25 in men’s singles, was found to have hosted a card game in his room with at least six other players, several of them from France.

Paire was barred from playing in the U.S. Open, and even though no one else tested positive, the other players who were near him had to follow more strict isolation rules — even after they were eliminated — and health officials eventually prohibited Kristina Mladenovic from participating in the doubles tournament.

The Paire saga has continued since the U.S. Open.

After quarantining for 14 days in New York, Paire traveled to Rome, where he tested negative but lost in the first round of the Italian Open. He then went to Hamburg, Germany, to play in the Hamburg European Open. He tested positive but medical officials allowed him to play because they determined that after 14 days an asymptomatic person was unlikely to continue to be contagious.

On Wednesday, he defaulted in the second set of his first round match against Casper Ruud. In a television interview following the match, Paire said, “I can’t take it anymore, I’m breaking.”

In Paris, a positive test would have resulted in Paire’s immediate elimination. Players who test positive in Paris are asked to isolate for seven days, compared with a mandatory 14-day isolation in New York.

“Everyone would like to get back to a normal situation, but first we have to solve the essential problem, which is global health,” Nadal said. “The only thing we can say is thank you for letting us play tennis.”

Karen Crouse reported from Paris.

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