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French Open schedule: Women’s tennis and evening sessions need to change

Just before noon last Thursday, French Open tournament director Amelie Mauresmo convened a media briefing.

Half an hour later, she imposed an immediate alcohol ban in the stands of Roland Garros. The first week of the 2024 French Open was marked by poor crowd behavior; the tournament had decided enough was enough. It showed that if there is a will, things can be done quite quickly in tennis.

When there is a will.

Iga Swiatek won the women’s singles title on Saturday afternoon, capping another year of beautiful women’s tennis at Roland Garros that was hampered and, in the case of the final match of each day, completely overlooked by scheduling.

The Court Philippe-Chatrier night session, which has been marketed as the “match of the day” since its introduction in 2022, this year consisted of 11 men’s matches and zero women’s matches. In both 2022 and 2023 there were nine men’s matches and one women’s match. Despite many conciliatory words from Mauresmo, there is more chance, but less action. It’s getting worse.

This also applies to the third slot in prime time on the same field. A year after Mauresmo proudly said that “the (daytime) prime slots were much more balanced,” the slot has returned to favoring the men, scheduling them next on six of the ten days when both men’s and women’s matches were scheduled during the day. Women’s matches also included the morning service in the cemetery on all ten of those days.

Philippe-Chatrier watches Carlos Alcaraz play Stefanos Tsitispas in this year’s quarter-finals (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Mauresmo and the tournament in general do not seem concerned about the possible messages being sent to young players and tennis fans who come home from school to see that the women’s matches are over for the day, with the men getting the full crowd and attention . What this perception will do to girls’ participation in sports when they see women continually overlooked in this way is seemingly not an issue.

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Some WTA players who have been outspoken in their criticism of the French Open scheduling. Last year, US No. 5 Jessica Pegula called the lack of women’s night matches “disappointing” in a column for the BBC, while No. 8 seed Ons Jabeur has well and truly taken the title this year.

She has repeatedly wondered why women are apparently treated as second-class players. After being scheduled for Tuesday’s 11 a.m. Chatrier match for her heavyweight quarterfinal against third seed Coco Gauff, she said:

“I have a lot to say on that subject (planning). Ten (eventually eleven) night matches without any women playing. I really hope I can see the contract negotiated with Prime (video). I really don’t understand the ins and outs, even for men. Playing this late for men after midnight is not a good thing.

“Honestly, playing a quarter-final at 11am is such a chore. We deserve to be here. Playing in the afternoon is better. More people will watch us and the stadiums will be packed.”

Coco Gauff and Ons Jabeur played against a backdrop of many empty chairs. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

On that particular occasion, Gauff played doubles later in the day, so an early start was necessary. Match planning at a Grand Slam is undoubtedly a tricky business, and player preference also plays a role. World No. 1 and current champion Iga Swiatek prefers not to play at night; When asked about the scheduling, she said, “Sorry to say that, but it doesn’t matter to me… I like to play during the day, so it’s nice for me to be able to be scheduled that way.”

All tennis players are primarily interested in what makes them perform best. And while it would have been welcome if Swiatek had taken a stand, it is not up to female players to act as crusaders because the people whose job it is to promote equality make unforced errors. The French Open is free to schedule Swiatek in the evening. Rafael Nadal, her idol, rejects the idea of ​​playing on clay in the dark, but he has played plenty of night sessions at Roland Garros. If an event can suddenly introduce an alcohol ban, it must have enough teeth not to keep acceding to the requests of top players. Indeed, Swiatek is one of the few women to play in a night session – against Marta Kostyuk in 2021, when fans were not allowed in the stadium due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The French Tennis Federation (FFT) did not respond to a request for comment on these issues The Athletics. The WTA, which organizes the women’s tour but is separate from the Grand Slams, issued a statement this week questioning the scheduling of the French Open.

“The generation and depth of talent we are currently witnessing in the sport is incredible,” the women’s tennis governing body said.

“Fans want to see the thrill and excitement of women’s tennis on the biggest stages and in the premium time slots. To further increase the value of our combined product, a balanced competition schedule featuring both the best in men’s and women’s tennis is crucial.”

Iga Swiatek plays in the night session against Marta Kostyuk in 2021 (Christophe Archambault / AFP via Getty Images)

The speed of the alcohol decision in the first week was the most revealing, as Mauresmo has advocated gradual change in recent years. In 2022, Mauresmo, after apologizing for saying there was “more appeal and appeal in general for the men’s matches” (comments described as “a bit disappointing and surprising” by Swiatek), said the tournament would explore how the planning could be more equitable. “It would be good to maybe have the opportunity to organize two matches, or maybe a women’s match plus a doubles match,” was one of her suggestions.

The following year, with still no change, Mauresmo admitted that “we can do better during the night matches”, but pointed to an improvement when it came to the daytime primetime slots. An improvement that has been reversed this year. The discussion around scheduling at the French Open has therefore shifted: it is no longer the well-documented inequality that seems unwavering that is most frustrating, but the consistent pleas for gradualism from a tournament that has repeatedly demonstrated this. can and wants to make decisions quickly.

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In addition to banning alcohol, the tournament was also decisive last week, when incessant rain caused them to start tearing the schedule into pieces and moving matches back and forth – culminating in the decision to transfer Grigor Dimitrov and Zizou Bergs to Chatrier, which led to Novak Djokovic and Lorenzo Musetti ending their next match after 3am.

Amelie Mauresmo congratulates Swiatek after winning the title against Jasmine Paolini on Saturday. (Tim Goode/Getty Images)

Ultimately, much of this is driven by the television rights deal with Amazon Prime that Jabeur referred to, which gave the broadcaster exclusive rights (in France) to the night sessions when they were introduced two years ago – at a time after the Covid-19 crisis . At the time of the pandemic, bringing in bigger revenues was especially important for anyone involved in tennis. In 2023, that deal was extended through 2027, including the 11th night session match. The broader landscape will change following Friday’s news that Warner Bros. Discovery has agreed a 10-year rights deal worth $650 million (£511.8 million) to be the new home of the French Open in the US from next year, but how, or if, this will affect scheduling remains unknown .

Money also plays a role in on-the-ground decisions. The length of the men’s matches makes them more attractive to those who have purchased tickets. Night ticket holders will pay between £45 and £100 for the first round and between £85 and £180 for the quarter-finals, which can be used to support the match. the argument that it would be too great a risk to potentially shortchange them in a match that lasts less than an hour.

Changing the format or adding a doubles match to the schedule would temporarily solve this problem; finding parity in the men’s and women’s games and making their matches the same length – best-of-three for both in the first week, and best-of-five in the second – still feels like the best solution. While this change would require unilateral Grand Slam – and WTA and ATP – approval, would likely take many years and would by no means be guaranteed, it would at least merit the gradualism and careful consideration that continues to be applied to something that is otherwise easily seems to be solved.

It is also not unprecedented. 50 years ago, at the 1974 French Open, the first two rounds of the men’s draw were best-of-three, before moving to best-of-five for the remainder of the tournament.

(Top photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images)