French Open: Fans’ long lunch breaks embarrass organisers

Paris: The French Open is mostly a picture of elegance — well-dressed spectators in Panama hats watching the ball sizzle across the red clay in searing sunshine. The problem is when most of the crowd disappears for a long Mediterranean lunch.

While numbers at Roland Garros have been climbing steadily in recent years — there were a record 472,000 visitors in 2017, up 16,000 from 2016 — the stands are often half-empty during the lunch hour, which at the French Open can run from around 1130 am until 3 pm.

Early round women’s matches have been particularly affected but even the 2016 semi-final between Serena Williams and Kiki Bertens did not escape. Photos showed Philippe Chatrier, the main show court, largely deserted. The other semi-final between Garbine Muguruza and Sam Stosur was not much better attended.

As well as disappointing players — Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has expressed irritation — it does not look good on TV and is a source of embarrassment for the French Tennis Federation, which has been looking at ways to resolve it.

Wimbledon, with its hordes of tennis fans arriving from the world over to camp out for days or even weeks to get hold of tickets, has not faced the same problem.

Last year, Roland Garros sold tickets to the men’s semi-finals separately, so that rather than someone being able to buy a day pass and fit in a liquid lunch in between matches, spectators had to buy a ticket for one semi-final or the other.

This year, with the main tournament beginning on May 27 and running until June 10, organisers are hoping other minor tweaks will keep the show courts nicely filled.

“The problem arises especially during the first week, with games starting at 11 am,” a spokesperson for the French Tennis Federation acknowledged.

“To help fill the courts, we’re giving our hospitality customers a lot of flexibility in the ticketing, so they are able to host several guests on the same ticket at different times during the day,” he explained.

That means that while one guest may be enjoying one of the famously lavish hospitality lunches, another invited by the same sponsor could be sitting in the stands watching a game.

Of course, the federation is also keen to ensure sponsors can entertain as they see fit, and that everyone has a good time.

Top-notch hospitality tickets for the men’s semi-finals, including a gourmet lunch, all-day open bar and direct access to Philippe Chatrier, cost around 2,500 euros (Dh10,822) per ticket this year. At that price, punters want to make the most of everything — both the tennis and the hospitality.

“We want to offer our spectators an experience that’s rich on both the sporting and the non-sporting front,” the federation spokesperson said.

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