By Giri Nathan
Fresh off his 13th French Open, Rafael Nadal has returned to Paris, but Paris will not be welcoming him back—not in the flesh, at least. The tour has gone indoors, which is not ideal from the perspective of avoiding a virus transmitted by aerosolized respiratory droplets, but that’s what this season’s zombie schedule says. And the Paris Masters have shown that with enough persistence, professional sports can still be squeezed into a world that otherwise cannot afford any congregation of people at scale. I know everyone is doing their best to perform caution and thoughtfulness, but I can’t imagine that these improv-style logistics are pleasant to be a part of, and every time it happens, it gets easier and easier to sympathize with the feeling David Goffin described in September: “We are constantly concerned, before every tournament, we are in the expectation…. I’m running empty. I have no energy.”
This month was a study in steadily diminishing horizons. On Oct. 7, the French Tennis Federation confirmed that the Paris Masters would go ahead, with 1,000 spectators a day, in line with police regulations. To their delight, on Oct. 20, Rafa confirmed that he was in. On Oct. 21, the tournament clarified that those 1,000 spectators would only be present at day sessions, with night sessions left empty. Tickets opened up for sale on Oct. 23. And then on Oct. 29, the tournament announced that doors would be closed to fans. France was about to enter a four-week lockdown much like the one it saw in the spring.
That’s when the uncertainty began to seep in, enough so that players must have been left wondering whether this was worth it. An official communiqué from the ATP player relations on Oct. 28 read, in part: “The FFT will continue to engage with the French government to confirm the ability to play behind closed doors as soon as possible, and under exactly what conditions. We will keep you posted, with the FFT hoping to receive clarity by tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.” So: Confirmation on whether the tournament will be played is promised, at the earliest, some 48 hours before the tournament is set to start.
On Friday, the new restrictions set in, and will last until Dec. 1 at the earliest. French president Emmanuel Macron said his people would need to fill out paperwork to leave their homes, because “the virus is circulating at a speed that not even the most pessimistic forecasts had anticipated.” Among the permitted exceptions: buying essential goods, seeking medical attention, assisting a relative, going on a walk near the home. Not yet included: operating or participating in a major tennis tournament. But the clarification that the ATP prayed for Wednesday did arrive on Thursday, courtesy of the country’s sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu. “Professional athletes will be able to continue training and also compete, since business travel is permitted,” she said, speaking at the National Assembly.
And with her words, just like that, the tournament is on. There’s still one whole day for that to change, but by then, everyone involved should be settled down in France, enjoying the sights, sounds, and nationwide lockdown.
Above: The sport’s coolest-looking trophy basks in a spotlight on court in Paris. (Getty Images)