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Embarrassing French Open crowd serves a Paris Olympics alarm call

Serbia's Novak Djokovic serves to France's Pierre-Hugues Herbert during their men's singles match on Court Philippe-Chatrier on day three of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex in Paris on May 28, 2024
Numerous players have made complaints about the crowd at the French Open this year - Getty Images/ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT

The cat-calling at Roland Garros can ruffle even the stateliest players. Roger Federer, having netted a forehand after a yell from the crowd mid-rally, screamed “shut up” during his 2013 quarter-final against Juan Martin del Potro. In the 1999 women’s final, Martina Hingis left the court sobbing after loss to Steffi Graf, her tears triggered by abuse from fans who had objected to her disputing a second-set line call. The unseemly scenes witnessed at this year’s French Open – the mid-point shouts at Iga Swiatek, the claim by David Goffin that he had gum spat at him from the stands – form part of a Parisian pattern.

It appears that Amelie Mauresmo, the tournament director, has had enough, banning any courtside consumption of alcohol and ordering a security clampdown against hecklers. It is not before time. If even a character as serene as Swiatek can feel compelled to scold spectators, it is a sign their behaviour has gone beyond the pale. Once, their most irritating trait was whistling every time an umpire, in the absence of Hawkeye, descended from the chair to check a ball mark in the red dust. Now, according to Goffin? “It’s becoming like football – soon there will be smoke bombs, hooligans and fights in the stands.”

His comparison is perhaps ill-chosen. An afternoon’s tennis in the Bois de Boulogne, even when facing a French wildcard, does not come close to the hostility you encounter on an average Champions League night at the Parc des Princes. But this is still no excuse for the three-and-a-half hours of abuse that the Belgian endured in his first-round win over Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard. Goffin, usually imperturbable on tour, is far from the only player to have been shocked at his treatment, with Russia’s Daria Kasatkina also upset last year by the barracking.

Top-seeded Martina Hingis of Switzerland arrives in tears with her mother Melanie Monitor for the trophy ceremony after she lost to sixth-seeded Steffi Graf of Germany 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 in the women's final tennis match at the French Open at Roland Garros stadium in Paris Saturday, June 5, 1999
Martina Hingis was reduced to tears at Roland Garros in 1999 - Michel Euler/AP Photo

It is a place where partisanship can turn ugly. Rafael Nadal’s uncle Toni was not too far wrong when, disgusted at the booing of his nephew during a 2009 loss to Robin Soderling – the first of his French Open career – he reflected: “There is only one set of supporters worse than the French, and that is the Parisians. The Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. I don’t think the French like it when a Spaniard wins. Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself. It shows the stupidity of people who think themselves superior.”

This begs the question of how this summer’s Paris Olympics will unfold. Will players experience even greater vitriol when the tennis returns to Court Philippe Chatrier in a month’s time? One encouraging element is that alcohol is banned inside the venues, with Games organisers having chosen not to seek an exemption to France’s “Evin’s Law”, which permits a limited number of exceptions per year. But the sheer strength of opprobrium at Roland Garros towards the opponents of anyone French hints at the potential for unrest.

Plainly, there is a balance to be struck here. Mark Petchey, the former British No 1, made a reasonable point when asking why tennis, desperate to attract a younger demographic, insisted on imposing a laundry list of rules: “Don’t make a sound in a rally, don’t pick a side too vigorously, don’t drink in your seat, but also be in the seat continuously from 11am to 7pm…” This reflects the confusing inconsistencies across the slams when it comes to crowd control: why does Wimbledon demand that Centre Court matches are conducted in a cathedral-like hush, when high-rollers on New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium can have loud phone calls with their hedge fund managers on break point?

General View of centre court during the quarter-final between Iga Swiatek of Poland and Elina Svitolina of Ukraine during Day Nine of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 10, 2023 in London, England
Wimbledon mandates compete silence from the gallaries during points - Getty Images/Robert Prange

The French Open audience, though, occupy a category of mischief-making all their own. Even the most obdurate competitors have been worn down by the antagonism: take Serena Williams in the wake of losing her 2003 semi-final to Belgium’s Justine Henin, where she was so relentlessly booed that she ended up crying in the press conference. Maria Sharapova tried a different tack in 2008, when spectators kept distracting her on every point against Dinara Safina, turning to them after one winner and howling: “Up your f------ a--.”

Swiatek’s rebuke this week, telling fans they were creating an atmosphere where it was “hard to focus”, could hardly have been milder by comparison. And frankly, it was deserved. It is not just that there is sometimes a poisonous edge to their favouritism, but they are so fickle about when and when not to care.

One enduring annoyance is how many empty seats there are, even for duels as high-profile as Swiatek’s win over Naomi Osaka. If you thought Wembley was bad for deference to the corporate set, it is nothing compared to the segregation on Chatrier, where courtside boxes are reserved for one-percenters who can rarely be bothered to turn up unless the match is of the stature of Federer versus Nadal. With long, Veuve Clicquot-fuelled lunches prioritised over sport, it creates a dreadful look both on TV and on site. Haughty disdain as well as insults to players? Rarely a winning combination for any crowd. Mauresmo is quite within her rights to haul them into line.

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