Azarenka: Nervous to have fans at French Open

    Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”

Victoria Azarenka, a former world No. 1 in the midst of a career resurgence, said on Friday at the French Open that the tournament’s policy of allowing 1,000 spectators to attend makes her “nervous.”

“Obviously, having spectators and playing in front of fans, it’s always what I would prefer to do,” Azarenka said in her pre-tournament meeting with the media. “But I feel like, as all players, [we] are a little bit nervous about the health situation … [and] having these circumstances.”

Tournament organizers originally envisioned hosting up to 20,000 spectators, a number that health officials began to whittle down as France and the Paris region (the tournament is held on the outskirts of the city) began to experience a spike in positive tests for COVID-19. Health and civil officials including those in the office of Prime Minister Jean Castex reduced the number of fans to be allowed in recent weeks, first to 11,500, then to 5,000, and on Thursday to 1,000.

It’s unclear if those 1,000 fans will be limited to the main stadium, the Court Philippe Chatrier, or allowed to roam the grounds and watch matches taking place elsewhere. Spectators will be required to wear masks at all times.

“If it’s only on one court [where fans are allowed], I think it’s going to be a little bit weird for other players,” Azarenka said. “I don’t know why we’re trying something new because obviously we already had one Grand Slam in front of us [the US Open] where it seemed like things worked out well [with spectators prohibited]. I guess we always need to try something new for no reason.”

Azarenka, 31, is the No. 10 seed at Roland Garros following a dramatic rise from outside the top 50 at the start of this year. She compiled a 12-match winning streak during the US Open “double in the bubble,” winning the warm-up event, the Western & Southern Open. She upset Serena Williams in the semifinals of the US Open before falling to Naomi Osaka in the final.

Not all the players shared Azarenka’s concerns. Gael Monfils, beloved to the French crowds at his home Grand Slam, said at his news conference: “About the spectators, it’s been sad news that the numbers went the opposite way than what we want. … I guess we’re going to have to do with what we have.”

Fans were not the only point of contention among the players on media day. Defending champion Rafael Nadal was outspoken about the Wilson balls the tournament is using. According to many players, including 2019 finalist Dominic Thiem, the official tournament ball becomes too “heavy” in cool, damp weather because it fluffs up and absorbs too much of the top dressing on the court.

Nadal, who practiced with the balls under warmer conditions at his home in Mallorca, felt even then that it would be the wrong ball. “The ball was very slow,” he said. “I think [it is] not a good ball to play on clay, honestly. The ball [is] super heavy, becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders.”

Nadal, who has played just three matches on clay since he won the title at Roland Garros last year, said he has had to limit his practice time in Paris because of the punishment his arm was taking from the heavy balls in the cool weather.

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