COVID seems thing of the past at full-capacity French Open

·4 min read

PARIS (AP) — They sipped from glasses of Champagne or rosé while seated on the sand-colored cushions of wicker couches on a "terrasse" overlooking some smaller courts at Roland Garros. They crowded walkways and stood in lines dozens deep for waffles painted with Nutella or baguettes layered with ham, cheese and butter — and, sometimes, they gave up on those waits that could take 15 minutes or more.

In the stands, they wore their white hats and cried “Allez!" and punctuated points with rhythmic clapping. They took etiquette-breaching strolls through the stadium aisles during play. Most of all, and most important of all, they were there.

The crowds at the French Open were back to their no-mask, no-distancing, full-capacity, pre-pandemic levels Sunday for the start of this year's edition, as much a part of the fabric of the event as the red clay that defines the Grand Slam tournament.

“A really festive atmosphere,” observed Alice Dufour, a 21-year-old who was part of a group trip from her Miramont tennis club near Bordeaux. “It's a huge party.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions in a country that went through three severe lockdowns, attendance at the French Open was capped at 1,000 spectators daily in 2020, creating a total two-week count of 15,000, instead of the more than 470,000 that came through the turnstiles in 2019. A year ago, the maximum was 5,388 for each of the first 10 days, before being eased somewhat to allow 8,500 in when the men's final was held.

Sunday's attendance was 32,453.

Clearly, they're thrilled to watch tennis and partake in the sport of seeing-and-being-seen, of a piece with a society-wide sense of joy and relief at the notion that perhaps some semblance of normalcy has returned — even if the coronavirus is still responsible for illness and death around the world as variants spread.

The players, without a doubt, are pleased to see so many faces around again, too.

“I have always appreciated the fans, but this time they are part of it even more. ... I have realized, ever since everything kind of is getting back to normal, just, ‘Wow, this makes a huge difference,'” said Grigor Dimitrov, a three-time Grand Slam semifinalist from Bulgaria who is seeded 18th in Paris. “That’s partly why we enjoy the sport itself. Without the fans, we definitely won’t be the same.”

As his 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 victory over American Marcos Giron unfolded at 1,351-seat Court No. 7, the place was standing-room only — and there was a lot more standing going on in the queues outside entrances for folks hoping to sneak in during the third set, no matter how lopsided it was.

One Dimitrov fan draped a white-green-and-red Bulgarian flag over a glass railing along a balcony of the nearby main stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier, while catching a glimpse from there.

Shouts rose from an adjacent arena, where a pair of unseeded, unheralded players met. Later, in Chatrier, when a Frenchwoman won a game in a match she would lose to a Greek opponent, the locals delighted in the development, chanting their player's first name repeatedly.

“It's amazing to have the fans back, to have the people back,” said Katerina Siniakova, a Czech player who won the women's doubles title last year and won a first-round singles match Sunday.

John Isner, the 23rd-seeded American, recalled his third-round loss to eventual runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas in Chatrier in 2021, when a COVID-19 curfew meant the stands had to be emptied at about midnight.

“It was surreal out there, playing on center court at night, with literally no one watching except his team and my team. That kind of stunk,” Isner said after his victory Sunday.

“Happy to have the fans back. I think they showed up very well today — I mean, not just on my court. I could hear roars going around the grounds," he said. "Fans are very passionate here, and the players appreciate that.”

One fan who certainly appreciated the chance to be in attendance Sunday was Ryan Cardiff, a 24-year-old American who said he was supposed to take a vacation in France in May 2020 to mark his graduation from the University of California, Berkeley, where he played tennis.

That celebratory trip needed to wait until now. But eventually, it happened, and Cardiff was in line Sunday to enter Court No. 8 with his mother, Sheryl Kline.

“It's super cool. A lot of energy," Cardiff said. “The fans are really into it.”

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