Tension in the stands, tension in the press room: the temperature is rising and rising at Roland Garros.
PARIS – In the middle of the night in Paris, an American tennis player gives the French crowd the silent signal and is dismissed with a thunderous boo. In the middle of the day, a journalist tells a Russian tennis player “I am from the Donbass”, and tension rises in the press room. In the middle of the afternoon, a Belarusian tennis player says she doesn’t feel safe when asked questions by the press and misses her appointment with the journalists.
It’s Roland Garros, a tournament that is getting hotter and hotter, and not just because summer has come early to Paris and there is no trace of the rainy and treacherous spring-like weather in the French capital.
The tension has been building since the start of a tournament that before it began lost its big name, Rafael Nadal, but reached bizarre extremes on Thursday night, when American Taylor Fritz defeated Frenchman Arthur Rinderknech 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 at the Suzanne Lenglen stadium, the second largest in the Paris complex and the loudest, the most out-of-control at the crowd level.
“I love you guys!” said Fritz with an altered gesture and tons of irony as the booing made it impossible to hear anything. Fritz had committed the sin of not only complaining about a ball being spiked during the match, but, above all, of eliminating the last Frenchman in the competition. Once again. Forty years after Yannick Noah’s title, 1983 is still a myth, beyond the presence as a tribute on the clothing of the tournament staff this year.
This Saturday, when Fritz faces Argentina’s Francisco Cerúndolo, again on the Suzanne Lenglen, he will actually be facing a Frenchman, because the home crowd will be overwhelmingly behind the South American. The gesture of the fingers on the lips asking for silence will not be forgotten for many years to come. Even if Fritz was absolutely right.
The crowd’s over-the-top and unfair reaction to the American, who was harassed for much of the match, was viewed with embarrassment by many in France. French coach Patrick Mouratouglou, for example: “I don’t understand why people boo the player who asks to see a mark on clay. It becomes systematic. There’s nothing wrong with it and sometimes the chair umpire changes his decision after seeing it”.
Different was the problem raised by former French tennis player Gilles Simon, who reproduced the following scene on his twitter account:
Late Tuesday afternoon, watching Quentin (Halys) vs Guido (Pella).
“Dad, I’m looking forward to going to Roland Roland to cheer on the French team, it’s always a crazy atmosphere, looks great.
– Well, you’ve got school, so we’ll go on Saturday, I promise.
Does anyone have a solution?
No, there is no solution to the lack of French success in the men’s draw, a long-standing problem in a country with an excellent school of tennis players, but which lacks what is abundant, for example, on the other side of the Pyrenees, in Spain: success.
400 metres away from the Suzanne Lenglen stadium is the Philippe Chatrier, the great stage of tennis on clay. There, in a basement, journalists from all corners of the world write their chronicles and reports about what is happening at Roland Garros. And they talk to the players… unless something or someone prevents them from doing so.
Karen Khachanov, a Russian, sits in a small room in front of about ten journalists. There is a tense back and forth between him and a journalist, who asks him about the war in Ukraine.
“I am from the Donbass, from the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine.”
The air becomes thick, the tension is palpable.
“I’m a sportsman, I’m really sorry for what you’re going through, I really am. But I’m very bad at talking about politics, I’d rather we keep talking about sports”.
Khachanov walks out of the area where he was confronted by the Ukrainian journalist and approaches a demure Andrey Rublev, who has just been interviewed by a Russian journalist.
What happened, Khachanov is asked.
“The war…”, replies the Russian, who does not look angry, but beaten.
Earlier, the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka was absent from her press conference. The explanation? She was protecting her “mental health”.
“After my match [on Wednesday], I spoke to the media as I normally do. I know that they still expect some questions that have more to do with politics and not so much with my tennis,” Sabalenka said.
“For many months I have been answering these questions at tournaments and I have been very clear about my feelings and my thoughts. These questions don’t bother me after my matches. I know I have to give answers to the media about things not related to my tennis or my matches, but on Wednesday I didn’t feel confident at the press conference,” she claimed.
That day, Sabalenka was questioned about whether she supported Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and whether she rejected the war in Ukraine. twice in a row, the Belarusian replied, “I have no comments to make to you.”
“I should be able to feel safe when I give interviews to journalists after my matches,” Sabalenka said on Friday. “For my own mental health and well-being, I have decided to remove myself from this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision.”
That the tournament approved Sabalenka’s absence from a press conference generated widespread unease among the accredited press at Roland Garros. But “mental health”, for the past couple of years the workhorse of Roland Garros, won the day.