French Open scheduling: Women’s tennis and night sessions need to change


Just before noon last Thursday, French Open tournament director Amelie Mauresmo called a media briefing.

Half an hour later, she imposed a ban on alcohol in the stands at Roland Garros, with immediate effect. The first week of the 2024 French Open had been pockmarked by bad crowd behaviour; the tournament had decided that enough was enough. It demonstrated that when there’s a will, things in tennis can get done pretty quickly.

When there’s a will.

Iga Swiatek won the women’s singles title on Saturday afternoon, crowning another year of stunning women’s tennis at Roland Garros that has been hampered, and in the case of the final match of each day, completely overlooked by scheduling.

The Court Philippe-Chatrier night session, which since its introduction in 2022 has been marketed as the “match of the day,” this year featured 11 men’s matches and zero women’s matches. In both 2022 and 2023, it featured nine men’s matches and one women’s match. Despite many conciliatory words from Mauresmo, there is more opportunity, but less action. Things are getting worse.

This is also true of the prime-time third slot on the same court. A year after Mauresmo proudly said that “the (daytime) prime slots were much more balanced,” the slot has reverted to favouring the men, scheduling them then on six of the 10 days when there were both men’s and women’s matches scheduled for the daytime. Women’s matches have also been the graveyard morning shift on all 10 of those days.

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A full Court Philippe-Chatrier watches Carlos Alcaraz play Stefanos Tsitispas in this year’s quarterfinals (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Mauresmo and the tournament at large appear unconcerned by the possible messages sent to young players and tennis fans coming home from school to see that the women’s matches are done for the day, with the men getting the full crowds and attention. What that perception will do to the participation of girls in the sport when they see women continually overlooked in this way is seemingly not a concern.

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Some WTA players who have been outspoken in their criticism of the French Open’s scheduling. Last year, American world No 5 Jessica Pegula called the lack of women’s night matches “disappointing” in a column for the BBC, while this year the No 8 seed Ons Jabeur has well and truly taken on the mantle.

She has repeatedly questioned why women are apparently treated like second-class players. After she was scheduled for the Chatrier 11am slot for her heavyweight quarterfinal clash against third seed Coco Gauff on Tuesday, she said:

“I have a lot to say on that topic (scheduling). Ten (eventually 11) night matches without any women playing. I really hope that I can see the contract negotiated with Prime (Video). I really don’t understand the ins and outs, even for men. Playing that late for men after midnight is not a good thing.

“Frankly, playing a quarter-final at 11am is really such a chore. We deserve to be here. Playing in the afternoon is better. There is going to be more people watching us and the stadiums are crowded.”

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Coco Gauff and Ons Jabeur played against a backdrop of many empty seats. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

On that particular occasion, Gauff was playing doubles later in the day, so an early start was necessary. Scheduling matches at a Grand Slam is undoubtedly a tricky business, and player preference also comes into play. World No 1 and current champion Iga Swiatek prefers not to play at night; when asked about scheduling she said: “Sorry to say that, but I don’t care … I like playing during the day, so it’s comfortable for me that I can be scheduled that way.”

All tennis players care principally about what will make them perform best. And while it would have been welcome for Swiatek to take a stand, it’s not for women’s players to have to act as crusaders because the people whose job it is to promote equality are making unforced errors. The French Open is at liberty to schedule Swiatek at night. Rafael Nadal, her idol, disavows the very idea of playing on clay after dark, but he has played plenty of night sessions at Roland Garros. If an event can suddenly introduce an alcohol ban, it should have enough teeth not to bow to top players’ requests all the time. Swiatek is indeed one of the only women to play in a night session — against Marta Kostyuk in 2021, when no fans were allowed in the stadium because of Covid-19 restrictions.

The French Tennis Federation (FFT) did not respond to a request for comment on these issues from The Athletic. The WTA, which operates the women’s tour but is separate from the Grand Slams, issued a statement this week questioning the French Open’s scheduling.

“The generation and depth of talent we are currently witnessing in the sport is incredible,” the governing body of women’s tennis said.

“Fans want to see the excitement and thrill of women’s tennis on the biggest stages and in the premium time slots. To continue building the value of our combined product, a balanced match schedule that features both the best in men’s and women’s tennis is critical.”

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Iga Swiatek playing in the night session against Marta Kostyuk in 2021 (Christophe Archambault / AFP via Getty Images)

The quickness of that alcohol decision in the first week was most revealing because Mauresmo has been making the case for gradual change over the last couple of years. In 2022, after apologising for saying that there was “more attraction and appeal, in general, for the men’s matches” (comments described as “a little bit disappointing and surprising” by Swiatek), Mauresmo said that the tournament would look into how scheduling could be more equitable. “It would be good to maybe have the possibility to put two matches or maybe a women’s match plus a doubles match,” was one of her suggestions.

The following year, with still no change, Mauresmo admitted that “we can do better on the night matches” but pointed to an improvement when it came to the prime-time slots in the day. An improvement which has been undone this year. The discussion around the scheduling at the French Open has turned as a result: it is no longer so much the well-documented inequality that appears immovable that is most frustrating, but the consistent pleas for gradualism from a tournament that has on multiple occasions shown it can, and will, make quick decisions.

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As well as outlawing alcohol, the tournament was similarly decisive last week when incessant rain meant they started ripping up the schedule and moving matches all over the place — culminating in the decision to switch Grigor Dimitrov and Zizou Bergs onto Chatrier, leading to Novak Djokovic and Lorenzo Musetti finishing their subsequent match after 3am.

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Amelie Mauresmo congratulating Swiatek after she won the title on Saturday against Jasmine Paolini. (Tim Goode / Getty Images)

Ultimately, much of this is driven by the television rights deal with Amazon Prime that Jabeur referred to, and which gave the broadcaster exclusive rights (in France) to the night sessions when they were introduced two years ago — at a time after the Covid-19 pandemic when bringing in greater revenues was especially important for everyone concerned with tennis. In 2023, that deal was renewed until 2027, to incorporate the 11th night session match. The wider landscape will change following Friday’s news that Warner Bros. Discovery has a 10-year, $650 million (£511.8 million) rights deal in place to be the new home of the French Open in the U.S., as of next year, but how, and whether it will affect scheduling, remains unknown.

Money also plays in to decisions on the ground. The length of men’s matches makes them more desirable to those who have shelled out for tickets.Night-ticket holders pay between £45 and £100 for the first round and between £85 and £180 for the quarterfinals, which can be used to support the argument that it would be too big a risk to leave them potentially shortchanged by a match that lasts under an hour.

Changing the format or adding in a doubles match to the schedule would fix this concern temporarily; finding parity in the men’s and women’s game and making their matches the same length — best-of-three for both in the first week, and best-of-five in the second — still feels like the best solution. While this change would need unilateral Grand Slam — and WTA and ATP — approval, likely take many years, and be by no means guaranteed, it would at least merit the gradualism and careful consideration still being applied to something which otherwise feels easy to fix.

It’s also not unprecedented. 50 years ago, in the 1974 French Open, the first two rounds of the men’s draw were best-of-three before going up to best-of-five for the rest of the tournament.

(Top photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images) 



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