The leaves are falling in the nearby Bois de Boulogne, the temperature has plummeted and swirling winds have brought sharp showers that have sent players scuttling for cover during their practice sessions. Welcome to the French Open, which is traditionally held in glorious spring sunshine but will start this year on Sunday with a forecast of heavy rain and a temperature of just 11C. At least it will be a good year to showcase the new retractable roof over Court Philippe-Chatrier.
“I just want the weather to be better soon because I struggle with the cold,” Simona Halep, the favourite for the women’s title, said in Paris on Friday. “To play Roland Garros at the end of September is a little bit weird, but it’s nice that we have the chance to play at this tournament. We should actually thank everyone for fighting so hard to make it possible.”
The 2018 champion’s thoughts will be echoed by almost everyone within the sport. For many months it was touch-and-go whether the French Open would go ahead in its rescheduled slot following the spring shutdown.
With the number of new coronavirus cases rapidly rising in France – it reached a new daily high of 16,096 on Thursday – the limit on the numbers of spectators has been tumbling. Having originally hoped to admit 20,000 fans a day, tournament organisers had to cut that figure first to 11,500 and then 5,000 before being told on Thursday that the maximum number of spectators allowed on site would be just 1,000.
Andy Murray, asked on Friday how the players’ biosecure bubble in Paris compares with the one created in New York for the US Open, said that Roland Garros felt more like a normal tournament. “We are still using the locker rooms, though they’re quieter than usual, and we’re still using the same restaurants and the same spaces,” he said. “It feels more like it usually does on site.”
However, Murray said his coronavirus test on arrival had been “definitely more uncomfortable”. He explained: “I have never had that before where something goes up through your nose and into your throat. It's quite a weird feeling.”
At least Murray learned promptly that his test was negative. When he returned home from the US Open earlier this month he had to wait “five or six days” for the result of a test. As a consequence he was initially unable to leave his house to seek a diagnosis for a muscle problem in his left hip following his New York exertions.
However, once he started practising on clay, which has always been his most challenging surface, Murray was pleasantly surprised by his form. “Maybe it will be different when I get on the match court, but I felt decent,” he said. “Usually it takes quite a long time to get used to clay again. It didn't feel like it had been a year since I last played on clay.”
In his first match on Sunday, Murray will take on Stan Wawrinka, who was also his last opponent in Paris. It was during their gruelling semi-final in 2017 that Murray suffered the hip injury that ultimately led to major surgery last year, though he had sensed a problem in his quarter-final against Kei Nishikori.
“At the end of the Stan match, in the fifth set, I was struggling to push up on my serve and move to my forehand,” Murray recalled. “I never felt the same after that match.”
Murray is realistic about his expectations this year but said it would be “brilliant” to play Wawrinka, whose recovery from a serious knee injury paralleled the Scot’s struggles with his hip. “It would probably have been nicer to play someone different at the beginning and potentially build your way into the tournament, but if you win against Stan in the first round it can open things up,” Murray said.
The men’s singles is widely seen as a three-horse race between Rafael Nadal, who will be aiming to win the title for a record-extending 13th time, Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, and Dominic Thiem, the new US Open champion and runner-up to Nadal for the last two years. The next favourite according to the bookmakers is Stefanos Tsitsipas, whose odds are as long as 33-1.
This will be the first year when Nadal has gone to Paris without a clay-court title under his belt. The Spaniard has played only one tournament since February: He chose to miss the US Open and then lost to Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals in Rome last week.
Djokovic, meanwhile, won the title in Rome, meaning that his default from the US Open after unintentionally hitting a line judge with a ball remains his only defeat in 2020. Thiem has not played anywhere since his triumph at Flushing Meadows but usually needs little time to adjust to clay.
Of the other Britons, Dan Evans faces a tricky opener against Nishikori, Cameron Norrie takes on Colombia’s Daniel Elahi Galan, the world No 152, and Liam Broady’s reward for battling through qualifying is an encounter with the experienced Czech, Jiri Vesely. Kyle Edmund is injured.
After many of the leading women skipped the US Open, some are back in Paris, though three of the world’s top seven will be absent. Naomi Osaka, the champion at Flushing Meadows, has a hamstring injury, Bianca Andreescu has not played for nearly a year because of a knee problem and Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 champion, having already missed New York, decided she would not travel to Europe because of the health risks and because she had not been able to train properly with her coach during the lockdown.
Serena Williams will be attempting once again to match Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. However, the former world No1 has now failed to lift the trophy at her last nine Grand Slam tournaments. That is the longest she has ever gone without claiming one of the sport’s four biggest prizes.
Victoria Azarenka has been in outstanding form since the resumption and reached her first Grand Slam final for seven years in New York, but clay is a big challenge for the 31-year-old Belarusian, who has won only one match at Roland Garros since 2015.
While Garbine Muguruza, the champion in 2016, performed well in Rome last week, the player who beat her and went on to win the title will be the clear favourite to lift the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy for a second time. Halep, who has also been runner-up twice, has been unbeaten since the restart, having also won the title in Prague.
British hopes in the women’s draw lie with Johanna Konta, who was given a short straw when she was paired with Cori Gauff in the opening round, and Heather Watson, who takes on Fiona Ferro, a 23-year-old Frenchwoman ranked No 49 in the world who is currently enjoying the best year of her career and won her second title last month in clay in Palermo.
For most players it promises to be a stop-start event. “Today, for example, we went out and practised for 10 minutes and even though it hadn’t even started raining they came and put the covers on the court,” Murray said. “A few minutes later it started raining, so we went back inside. We came back 30 or 40 minutes later, but just as they were about to take the covers off, it started raining again. You kind of get the feeling that’s going to happen a lot.”