Advertisement

Cold and dark reality of watching tennis at 3am – Coco Gauff is right, it is not healthy

Serbia's Novak Djokovic reacts as he plays against Italy's Lorenzo Musetti during their men's singles match on Court Philippe-Chatrier on day seven of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex in Paris on June 1, 2024
Djokovic's late finish raises questions for French Open organisers - Getty Images/Emmanuel Dunand

After the weirdness of Novak Djokovic’s 3.07am finish, it felt equally strange to recall that – as recently as four years ago – French Open matches used to stop as soon as the sun went down.

What a contrast to the way they do things now. Any fans brave enough to stay for Djokovic’s final forehand might have got home an hour before dawn, if they were lucky.

The change of policy was a straightforward money grab. Having splashed out on some expensive upgrades in recent years – including the spectacular greenhouse court in the neighbouring Jardin des serres d’Auteuil – the French Tennis Federation needed an urgent cash injection.

They got it by inventing a night session in 2021 and flogging TV rights to Prime Video. That meant 15,000 extra tickets to sell, not to mention all the branded blankets required by bone-chilled fans.

Don’t get me wrong. Night sessions in Melbourne and New York – two of the other four majors – are magnificent occasions. But those are completely different climates, with average night temperatures of around 16 or 17 degrees. The equivalent figure for Paris in May is just 11.

Teenage sensation Mirra Andreeva put it well on Saturday evening. “What I’ve seen is that when you play a late match, there’s not a lot of people and you’re, like, in the dark. It’s so depressing. No one is watching, and it’s cold.”

While night-session tickets are specific to Court Philippe Chatrier, this disastrous innovation has changed the way the whole tournament operates.

Until floodlights arrived around the grounds in 2021, Roland Garros employed a natural curfew, which felt appropriate for a tournament played on this earthiest of surfaces.

Every evening, a series of mini-dramas used to unfold, as players argued with umpires over whether the light was playable or not. Oddly enough, the person trailing on the scoreboard tended to be having a harder time sighting the ball.

I have particularly fond memories of a five-setter from 2015, when a young Kyle Edmund fought back to beat home favourite Stephane Robert as shadows lengthened across Court No 7. As the fans bayed, and an incognito Andy Murray tiptoed into the stands, the dying light provided an extra frisson of suspense. Good times. All thrown away as part of the giant Roland Garros sell-out.

We haven’t even mentioned the players’ plight yet. Post-midnight tennis (now the norm at every slam apart from Wimbledon, which still observes Merton Council’s 11pm curfew) can mess with your head, your body and your sleep cycle.

Coco Gauff of the United States hits a forehand against Elisabetta Cocciaretto of Italy in the fourth round of the women's singles at Roland Garros on June 02, 2024 in Paris, France
Coco Gauff plainly laid out the dangers of late-night finishes - Getty Images/Frey

As American No1 Coco Gauff put it on Sunday: “Finishing at 3am, a lot of times people think you’re done, but then you have press and then you have to shower, eat, and then a lot of people do treatments, so that’s probably not going to bed until 5am at the earliest, maybe 6am, and even 7am. I definitely think it’s not healthy.”

Such arguments are unlikely to change anything, no matter how sensible they might sound. Finance delivers its own logic. It was the same story with the Miami Open a couple of years ago, when that much-loved tournament swapped its long residency on the tropical island of Key Biscayne for a soulless berth at Hard Rock Stadium.

The introduction of these night sessions has had an equally transformational impact on Roland Garros – and not for the better. Red clay glows magically in the sun (not that the clouds have parted much this week), but becomes lifeless when viewed under artificial light. The swaddled fans and tracksuited players cast a chill over the whole enterprise. In the most literal of senses, the French Open has become benighted.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.