The French Open launched night sessions for the first time this year, reserving the day's top match for primetime audiences as part of a new broadcasting deal, but a nationwide curfew is giving organisers an almighty scheduling headache.
Rafael Nadal, on the hunt for a 14th Roland Garros title and record 21st major, celebrated his 35th birthday Thursday on his beloved Court Philippe Chatrier by beating Richard Gasquet, in a showdown played under the bright lights, but, noticeably, without fans.
The French Tennis Federation (FFT) is in the first of a three-year contract with Amazon Prime Video that requires it to programme the main match in the evening, when it is exclusively broadcast in France on the streaming platform, tournament director Guy Forget told AFP.
However, the streaming of sports events in France is in its nascent stages, and because of the 9pm curfew, organisers are forced to empty the stands around 8.30pm, leaving these top-of-the-bill matches to be played in the shadows.
The easing of Covid-19 restrictions on June 9 will enable 5,000 spectators to attend the first men's quarter-final, but it will be the only one of 10 evening sessions to feature supporters.
Forget reached out to leading players and was clear about the situation.
"I know it's going to strongly displease you, but know that contractually the prize money we're paying you comes in part from the deal we've negotiated. So you will all play at least one night session in front of empty stands," he explained.
- 'Pressed up against the fence' -
Playing behind closed doors is tough for players who have been confined to bio-bubbles for the past year, as supporters gradually return to venues, with just over 5,000 allowed into Roland Garros daily before the capacity increases to 13,146 next Wednesday.
But an afternoon match that begins in front of fans and drags on can finish without anyone watching.
"Wednesday night, we took the spectators out at 5-all in the fifth set between (Cristian) Garin and Mackenzie (McDonald). It was horrible for them! The guys didn't want to go home, they were pressed up against the stadium fence form the outside and were encouraging the Chilean player," said Forget.
Carlo Suarez Navarro's first match back after recovering from cancer was another example. The Spaniard conceded she struggled after crowds were ushered out during the second set of her loss to Sloane Stephens.
"It's unfortunate," admitted Forget.
Beyond the unique health circumstances, putting together a Grand Slam order of play is much like piecing together an imperfect jigsaw puzzle as best as possible.
Global broadcasters -- the 2021 French Open is airing in 222 countries -- the ATP, WTA and players all try to influence the schedule.
"The American broadcasters are going to tell us: 'Serena Williams, we really want her to play at the end of the day because with the time difference, it's at those hours that we'll get our best audiences.' The Japanese will tell us 'We want Osaka and Nishikori to play first'," said Forget.
- 'We can be wrong' -
And then there are the requests of players themselves -- "some are very, very demanding about the times and courts on which they want to play", according to Forget, who must factor in those playing both singles and doubles as well as the weather forecast.
"You have to throw that all into the mixer, telling yourself: 'What do we do now?' That's why it takes two to three hours" per day to draw up a schedule, Forget revealed, while insisting his job is to "make sure that sporting equity is protected first and foremost".
There are decisions to be made and "we can be wrong", he acknowledged.
On Thursday, the choice was between Djokovic and Pablo Cuevas, the Gasquet-Nadal tie or Roger Federer's clash with Marin Cilic. Djokovic had played the previous night session, reducing it to Nadal or Federer.
"We chose Nadal hoping that Gasquet was going to outdo himself," said Forget. Instead, Nadal defeated his French rival for the 17th time in as many meetings.