Friday in Paris: a ticketing, demand and optics conundrum

ROLAND GARROS – Why it wasn’t raining chats et chiens most of Friday, given all the green and yellow on the radar, is an answer best left to the tennis gods.

Still, the decisions made by the Roland Garros organizers to have the women play early – even if simultaneously, on separate courts not named Philippe-Chatrier – looked prescient even if it remained mostly dry.

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No. 8 seed Ashley Barty was – somehow – able to get by 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova.

And unseeded Marketa Vondrousova was able to reach her first career Grand Slam final with a nervy match over No. 26 seed Johanna Konta.

But the main thing was that they got the matches in.

And thus, they assured the women’s singles final can be played Saturday.

ticketing
Why it hasn’t been raining all day at Roland Garros, given the radar (this was at the end of the first set of Federer-Nadal) is a question best left to the tennis gods (Accu-Weather).

And they got the matches in before the crazy gale-force winds kicked up and made the Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer match later in the afternoon a war of clay-blowing attrition.

But in theory, it was a tough call.

The men’s matches attract significantly more interest in Paris. Even with the thickest of blinders on, you can’t debate that.  

Just look at the full houses on both Court Philippe-Chatrier and Court Suzanne-Lenglen who watched so many of them play over the last 10 days.

In contrast, there were far too many empty seats for some high-quality women’s matches featuring some of the best in the world. Even Serena.

This is nothing new. Here’s the stadium back in 2016, for Williams vs. Elina Svitolina.

Is it “fair”? In an ideal world, the interest in men’s and women’s tennis is equal. Just as, as we’ve often heard in the debate over equal prize money, their effort is equal.

We don’t live in that world. People who spend money on a ticket to a major, or are invited by a corporate to sit in a sweet seat, can choose to watch – or not watch – whatever they want to. 

But that significantly superior interest in the men’s event here led, two years ago, to Roland Garros instituting separate ticketing for the men’s semifinals.

Part optics, part money grab

It wasn’t entirely a money grab. A ticket to watch both men’s semifinals went for for 200 euros in 2016. The ticket prices for each individual semifinal in 2017, the first year they did it, went for 115 euros.

A potential 10 sets of tennis in one day was too much for the weekend crowds at Roland Garros, which are made up far more of casual than diehard fans.

And if the first semifinal is a long one – for example, Nadal vs. Djokovic in 2013 – too many would jump ship before the second. There’s only so much the casual fan’s behind can take. And that year, it was Tsonga vs. Ferrer – a Frenchman at that.

Roland Garros already grapples with a perception problem. It’s not alone; only Wimbledon can boast tennis fans who take their seat before the first ball is struck on Centre Court every day, and stay until nearly the last.

So many premium seats long sold go begging on Chatrier. And fans watching at home on television bemoan that empty seat in the second row they would give their finest forehand to occupy.

But the move allowed more fans to see a major men’s semifinal. It ensured a better likelihood that the seats would be full. And, of course, by bringing more fans on site, it meant more concessions and food and drink would be sold.

But it also backs the tournament into a corner when the weather hits.

Whether the stands will still be jam-packed for the men five years from now, when the “big 3” are but a memory, is a question to be answered. But for now, the men’s semis remain prized tickets in Paris.

Major semifinal on a grounds pass

After Wednesday’s rainout, the women’s semifinals scheduled as a standalone Court Philippe-Chatrier attraction on Thursday had to be pushed back.

Add to that a dodgy weather forecast for Friday, and the tournament had some tough decisions to make.

By the second Thursday, Court Suzanne-Lenglen no longer is a ticketed court, as the singles action is scheduled to be confined to Court Philippe-Chatrier.

That means that for the price of a grounds pass (20 euros for grownups), fans can watch some doubles, the legends, and junior matches while enjoying the atmosphere.

On Friday, with the weather cooperative if hardly ideal, they got more. Two women’s semifinals. Unfortunately, they were simultaneously on Suzanne-Lenglen and the fabulous new greenhouse court, Simonne-Mathieu.

That they’ll play on courts named for two fabulous women is great, of course.

But you shouldn’t be able to see a major semi on a grounds pass. Of that, there is no doubt.

The dodgy weather forecast forced Roland Garros officials to make a call on court scheduling – one that’s unfair to the women but that couldn’t be avoided.

No other options

The WTA, which rarely comes out with any sort of statement on anything these days (see: 2020 Australian summer schedule decimated by ATP Cup), did issue a statement about this Thursday.

It came many hours after the schedule was revealed. And it was, not atypically, ineffectual.

If they “believe” there were alternatives, you’d think they would have stated them. 

The women are not, as this statement seems to imply, going to play on “outside courts”. That would be Court 7. Or Court 14.

All-time greats on the men’s side

The men’s semifinals, for the reasons stated above, are immovable objects.

That the top four seeds in the draw have made it there – including the hoped-for 39th chapter of the Federer-Nadal rivalry – only carves it in stone.

Amélie Mauresmo’s opinion below was from the heart. But had she spoken to her friend Guy Forget, the tournament director, she’d have realized that her solution was not a workable one. It was not, as she put it “pretty simple”.

It appears she also didn’t check the forecast.

Semifinals for the true fans

Even the French Open would not deny the women their well-earned place on the tournament’s biggest court, were there no other alternative.

But with the two men’s semifinals, what do they do? Do they open the action with one women’s semifinal (and which one?), and hope they can get both men’s semis finished before night falls and despite rain interruptions?

Even in perfect circumstances, that’s too much to ask for a 10-hour (at best) window of play.

Would the decision have been different if the top four women’s seeds – Naomi Osaka, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep and Kiki Bertens – made it this far?

At 19, Vondrousova is just beginning her career. And she may well be a star in the making. But in 2019, at Roland Garros, she’s not yet drawing the casual fan.

Look at those names. And look at the roster on the men’s side, which includes three of the greatest of all time. It includes a legendary rivalry that may well be re-ignited for a final time in Paris. And it includes a man going for his second calendar Grand Slam, and another who is the likely successor to Nadal on the Roland Garros clay.

You know the answer to that one.

If the weather forecast had not been issue, it’s likely they would have put the women’s singles on, back to back, in Lenglen. 

Now, Lenglen is not Chatrier. But it’s treated as a virtual “co-equal” by the tournament both in terms of ticket prices and in terms of the scheduling. Roger Federer played there more than once, if you want more evidence. 

But it wasn’t realistic for the tournament to suddenly institute ticketing for that court, at the last minute, to accommodate the weather delays. Firstly, how much would they charge? And they would then have to open the court to allow the fans with grounds passes to access whatever other matches they scheduled there.

That women’s Grand Slam semifinals were played outside the main stadium, and with open grounds pass seating, was certainly not fair. But there weren’t many alternatives. (FranceTV)

Legends, and long shots

That’s probably a blessing in disguise. With the No. 8 seed, No. 26 seeds and two unseeded teenagers in the women’s semifinals, it would have been a challenging sell. Especially at the last minute. To have a half-empty (or worse) stadium for two major women’s semifinals would have created a far worse optics problem then playing them on a non-ticketed court.

No, it’s not “fair”.  In that way that real life isn’t fair.

But it’s what they had to deal with in these circumstances.

Djokovic is chasing history – again. Thiem is the future of Roland Garros on the men’s side.

For those who want to make it an “equality” issue, here’s a comparison that might put that into perspective.

Try to imagine one “tour” having Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and an up-and-coming … Steffi Graf (insert name here) in its semifinals.

And then you look over to the other tour, and you see … Ashleigh Barty, Johanna Konta, Amanda Anisimova and Marketa Vondrousova.

They’re all fine players. They’ve had outstanding tournaments to get here. But the competition here on the “other tour” includes three of the best of all time. Literal legends. Icons.

No matter who made it to the French Open women’s semifinals, that wouldn’t change.  

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