City of Light's silent nights: Curfew cuts French Open crowd

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Between points, one man’s lonely voice left the press box to pierce the air at Court Philippe Chatrier as Rafael Nadal played Richard Gasquet under the lights in the City of Light to close the French Open’s second round.

“Allez! Allez, Richie!” came the cries during the first set of 13-time champion Nadal’s 6-0, 7-5, 6-2 victory.

Jazz music from somewhere outside the stadium wafted through at one stage. At another, police sirens wailed nearby outside the grounds. Otherwise, the sounds Thursday were pretty much limited to the rippled clicking of photographers’ cameras, the thud of tennis balls meeting racket strings and Nadal’s trademark grunts. Not much in the way of cheers, chanting or applause.

Welcome to the (mostly) silent nights of Roland Garros, which this year has joined Flushing Meadows and Melbourne Park in scheduling night sessions. Unlike the rowdy, raucous crowds at those Grand Slam counterparts, there are no spectators for these late matches at the French Open because of coronavirus restrictions and a strict 9 p.m. local curfew.

“It was kind of funny, because I feel like I’ve played a ton of night matches — especially in Australia or the U.S. Open — and I almost had a moment of thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve done this before,’ in the middle of the match, and then thinking, ‘Wait. No I haven’t,’” said Madison Keys, the 2017 runner-up in New York who is seeded 23rd in Paris and played in a match on a secondary court that ended at nearly midnight this week. “It was a little bit strange. But the fact that they’ve added lights and that we are able to play these matches late into the day, it’s so beneficial. Everyone would rather play until midnight than play until almost 10 (p.m.) and have to stop and come back the next day.”

At 8:35 p.m. Thursday, a stadium announcement came, first in French, then in English: “Ladies and gentlemen, stadium gates will close in 10 minutes.”

Ten minutes later, a second announcement arrived: “Ladies and gentlemen, gates are closing to the public.”

So folks were filing out into the streets as the sun started to set.

“It’s sad,” said Haitem Bensafiddine, a French fan who was able to see Roger Federer beat Marin Cilic on Thursday before needing to leave. “It would have been nice to watch Nadal.”

The official night program includes just one match in the main stadium each day; so far Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev have joined Nadal in being placed in that slot. But earlier matches that run longer on other courts also are allowed to continue with the help of the artificial lights installed last year — and if the action stretches beyond 9 p.m., play is halted briefly while fans leave.

“It’s better playing with a crowd,” said Nadal, who turned 35 on Thursday and so might have been serenaded with a verse of “Happy Birthday” had enough people been there to sing.

Gasquet, meanwhile is a popular French player who perhaps might have benefited from some partisan backing from his countrymen. (Then again, perhaps not: This loss dropped Gasquet's career record against Nadal to 0-17.).

“Obviously it would have been great for me to play at 5 p.m.,” Gasquet said. “But I’m a professional player. So is Nadal. We know that the situation is difficult at the moment.”

Tennis players, like athletes in other sports, grew accustomed to competing in front of emptier — or entirely empty — stands during the pandemic, of course.

Last year, only 1,000 spectators were allowed in each day at the French Open. This year, it’s been a little more than 5,000, which is supposed to rise above 10,000 next week.

And one other change to the setup is planned for next Wednesday: The curfew is supposed to be moved to 11 p.m. — just in time for the last night session of the 15-day event.

“We haven’t had a ton of tournaments with lots of fans and lots of the energy and all of that. And I feel like fans in Paris just love tennis so much. So it was so nice all day to hear people and see everything going on,” Keys said. “And then it was a little bit sad they had to clear out.”

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AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.

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