Rafael Nadal may find himself vying for the French Open men’s singles title under conditions he has never encountered in his previous 12 victories at Roland Garros: the molten sunshine and chilly afternoons of autumn.
That’s the plan for now. However, the French Tennis Federation’s (FFT) controversial decision to push the second Grand Slam of the year into a fall time slot is fraught with conflicts and problems that could heavily impact participation — including Nadal’s.
The FFT announced Tuesday that due to the coronavirus, the tournament — scheduled to start in its traditional late-May time slot — will be played from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4.
The decision, taken without consultations with any of its partners in tennis including the other three Grand Slams, the ATP and WTA, has sent shock waves through the sport.
“That’s insane,” Vasek Pospisil, a member of the ATP Player Council, told the New York Times.
“It’s irresponsible,” Sven Groneveld, who has coached a number of French Open champions, told ESPN.com.
Tennis depends heavily on cooperation and communication among diverse stakeholders whose interests don’t always mesh but who usually find ways to iron out their differences. The action of the FFT is a dramatic departure from that modus operandi. Multiple sources including the ATP and various Grand Slam officials confirmed that the FFT acted unilaterally. Members of the ATP Player Council did not return calls requesting further comment, but some were active on social media.
“This is such a difficult time. Everyone is being impacted by this catastrophe,” Pospisil, a player rights activist wrote on Twitter. “Enhancing communication & working together to find solutions should be the priority. Not going Rogue & making selfish/arrogant decisions to further impact the tour in a negative way.”
The action threatens to turn the already-complex and unwieldy infrastructure of tennis into a veritable house of cards.
If the French Open can go rogue and arbitrarily insert itself anywhere in the calendar without repercussions, so can any other tournament. That number includes the recently canceled events like Indian Wells or the Miami Open. Even before the decision by the FFT, there was speculation that both of those events could be shifted to the fall when the weather in the California desert and Florida is as pleasant — if not more — than in March.
Or what if the US Open, scheduled to begin on the last day of August, decides to push back in the calendar, butting right up against the French Open or even conceivably into the same time slot the FFT has now claimed?
The statement released by the USTA in response to the actions of the French Tennis Federation contained reassurances that US Open officials would not disregard their fellow world-tour stakeholders. It also contained a rebuke:
“These are unprecedented times, though, and we are assessing all of our options, including the possibility of moving the tournament to a later date. At a time when the world is coming together, we recognize that such a decision should not be made unilaterally and therefore the USTA would only do so in full consultation with the other Grand Slam tournaments, the WTA and ATP, the ITF and our partners, including the Laver Cup.”
The Laver Cup, the wildly popular team event conceived by Roger Federer and partly owned and financed by the ATP, the USTA and Tennis Australia, also pushed back against the FFT. According to Laver Cup officials, their event, scheduled for Sept. 25-27 in Boston, is already sold out.
In a statement, Laver Cup officials wrote: “This announcement came as a surprise to us and our partners, Tennis Australian, the US Open and the ATP. It raises many questions and we are assessing the situation. At this time, we want [our fans, sponsors etc.] to know that we intend to hold the Laver Cup 2020 as currently scheduled.”
Laver Cup is merely a three-day event, an exhibition with no impact on the ATP World Tour rankings. But the elite players including Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas and others, have enthusiastically supported the event. The Laver Cup date has proved attractive to players eager to chill after the curtain falls on the Grand Slam season in New York. The players have embraced team play with open arms.
The ATP pros may face a difficult choice come September if they had hoped to kick back at Laver Cup because, as things stand, they will automatically be entered in the French Open. That isn’t just an administrative procedure; the contracts between the ATP, WTA and the Grand Slams call for mandatory participation in majors for all who qualify by ranking.
Sources at the International Tennis Federation, which is closely affiliated with the Grand Slams, told ESPN.com that if players avoid Grand Slams to take part in other events happening concurrently, the ATP or WTA could be charged with breach of contract and sued for materially damaging the majors. This could unleash a chain of events that could transform tennis as we have come to know it in this golden era of the Big Three.
Of course, nobody at this point knows how a continuing pandemic will affect the tours. On Wednesday, the ATP and WTA jointly announced that their tours would extend their current hiatus until June 7, which — not coincidentally — is the day after the French Open was to have ended. The proposed resume date would kick start the grass-court events that lead up to Wimbledon.
It’s impossible to predict what Wimbledon will do in the coming days and weeks, but insiders familiar with the way Wimbledon goes about its business suggest that the most closely watched tennis tournament of the year would eschew a postponement and simply cancel the tournament. “It would be just like a war year,” said a source who asked not to be named.
The last time a major was canceled was during World War II, as 17 Grand Slam event were called off, starting with the French Open in 1940. The only major tournament that was played during that period was the US Open (U.S. National Championships), which has been played continuously since 1881.
The decision facing Wimbledon will be shaped partly by a loaded calendar that includes, following the current July 12 conclusion of event, the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo (July 24-Aug. 9) and the hard-court US Open (Aug. 31-Sept. 13). The conditions in London are not considered favorable for an autumn Wimbledon.
“The way it looks right now, we’d be lucky to have any tennis this season at all,” Groeneveld told ESPN.com by telephone from his home in the Netherlands where he has been in self-quarantine with his family. “If they do reshuffle the calendar, it will be tough on the players. They will want to play, but they need to be very flexible. If that means the US Open and French Open back-to-back, that’s what the players need to do.”
Groeneveld predicts that if anything is salvaged of the season, tour officials probably will scramble to fill every available slot on the calendar as soon as the light goes green again. That will present numerous challenges and may lead to tweaks in the current system.
“It may convince officials to go with best-of-three matches in the early rounds at majors,” Groeneveld said. “They will also have to figure out how the rankings (currently frozen) will work and do something about qualifying if the schedule is so tight.”
The new time frame of the French Open is a precise two weeks with no provision for the tradition qualifying, long an important staple of tournament play at every level. The rules call for each Grand Slam event to save room for 16 qualifiers who earn the berths by finishing as the top contenders in a qualifying tournament immediately preceding the main event.
The potential disruption posed by the shift of French Open dates has put Nadal in a quandary. The “King of Clay” is a French Open icon — so much so that FFT president Bernard Giudicelli told the New York Times that tournament director Guy Forget informed Nadal of the planned change even before the official announcement was made. Nadal is the defending champion as well as a member of the ATP Player Council. He is also defending champion at the US Open, and a fan of and a prominent fixture in the Laver Cup.
Nadal had been on track to equal Federer’s all-time men’s Grand Slam singles title (20) at Roland Garros, the most fitting place for the No. 2-ranked player to draw equal with his great friend and rival. Now, it’s uncertain when or where Nadal will play next.