PARIS – Gilles Moretton, president of the French tennis federation, removes his mask and leans over a large table at Roland Garros on Tuesday morning.
In three months, Moretton’s term did not exactly start flying. The French Open, run by his organization, was blessed with sunshine for the first ten days, but not much else.
Pandemic restrictions have reduced the number of spectators allowed on the site and cut deep in revenue, just as the federation had to repay hundreds of millions of euros borrowed for the recent renovation in Roland Garros. For the first time in history, no French single has reached the second round. The biggest story of the first ten days of the tournament was not the matches played, some of which were excellent, but the matches never started.
There was the second round of Naomi Osaka, the brightest rising star in the women’s competition, after a disagreement with Moretton and other Grand Slam tournament leaders over media duties. Roger Federer, still the biggest draw in the men’s match at the age of 39, withdrew after three rounds to retain his right knee and his energy for Wimbledon.
But Moretton, who was once good enough to face Bjorn Borg in the French Open (with a loss), did not regret his timing during an interview in the presidential box office with a view of the main stadium, Philippe Chatrier Court, how empty though.
“I came at a time when the situation is very difficult due to the pandemic and the results in French tennis,” he said. “But at the same time, I see it as an extraordinary opportunity. Because we have the saying that when you are at the bottom of the pool, you will definitely have to return to the surface. ‘
Moretton defended the handling of the second-seeded Osaka’s refusal to attend news conferences and other compulsory media duties, an announcement she made on social media ahead of the French Open that surprised Grand Slam officials.
Osaka’s initial announcement states that it is necessary to maintain her mental health without providing details. According to several tennis officials, Osaka did not respond to several requests to further explain the situation. She was fined $ 15,000 for skipping one news conference in Paris. Moretton and the leaders of the three other Grand Slam tournaments – Wimbledon and the Australian and United States – then issued a stern statement warning of increasing fines, including a possible suspension from the tournament if she continued to remember.
“I think we did very, very well,” Moretton said, adding that officials hoped to oust Osaka. “The purpose was not to punish her. It was to say clearly: here is the rule. ”
Osaka withdrew via social media the next day, where she explained that she had experienced long depression since winning the US Open in 2018.
Rennae Stubbs, a former player who is a coach and an analyst at ESPN, said the French federation had handled it “terribly.” She and other former players said officials should have shown more sensitivity and avoided threatening Osaka in public.
“I think we would continue to fine her,” Moretton said. “I do not think we should have had a stricter sanction because we understood the situation. But that’s the rule. The rule is there to be fair to all the players. ”
Osaka has since announced that it will take an indefinite break from the tour.
Moretton, 63, said he was concerned about players’ mental health. “The problem she raised is a real problem, a real topic for discussion,” he said.
But he said he was also concerned about maintaining equal treatment between players and the ability of the news media to cover the sport.
“Maybe we’ll change the rules, and then everyone will just come if they want to,” Moretton said. “You will see that not many are coming.”
‘Everyone will be their own journalist,’ he adds, ‘talk if they want to talk, say what they want to say, respond only to questions they want to answer. And I think this is a serious problem. So yes, of course for measures that will provide help and support to players, but let’s keep the freedom of the press to ask a question that may be uncomfortable and that interests the public, these are the ones that the athletes and the people’s livelihood provided. personalities. ”
As for Federer’s withdrawal, Moretton said he had “too much respect for Roger” to question his decision. Federer was not fined for the withdrawal. Guy Forget, the French Open tournament director, told French news organization L’Équipe that Federer had mentioned his knee as an official medical reason for his withdrawal.
“Everyone wants to see him play for as long as possible,” Moretton said. “We know he will turn 40 soon. It will be difficult. We can see it, and he knows it himself, and he must preserve himself. ‘
Moretton plans to build stronger ties with the other Grand Slam tournaments and create more unity that will give tennis leaders a stronger collective voice. The stern statement about Osaka was perhaps a product of that zeal.
The French federation, under former president Bernard Giudicelli, built up feathers in the sport last year by moving the start of the French Open from May to September without the approval of other tennis institutions. The tournament was also moved back a week, but Moretton insisted it was done in consultation with other tennis leaders.
The one-week postponement this year was made to allow more fans during the second week of the tournament, when the restrictions of the French government would be eased. The number of spectators allowed on site will more than double from 5,300 to 13,000 on Wednesday and Thursday, and Moretton said there will be 5,000 spectators at Chatrier for both finals.
The last night session without supporters was on Tuesday when fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas beat second-seeded Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 7-6 (3), 7-5 in a quarter-final.
“Our game was a game of the day, and Roland Garros preferred Amazon over people,” Medvedev said, referring to Amazon Prime Video, which aired the night sessions in France.
The revenue is still lower than an event that normally draws 38,000 spectators a day. In 2019, the tournament generated 260 million euros, or about $ 316 million. In 2020, it yielded about 130 million euros, and Moretton said the numbers would be similar this year.
“We’re going to be hit hard,” he said.
Government relief and loans and the large reserves of the federation helped weaken the battle and, especially for Moretton, maintained financial support for tennis clubs and leagues in France.
Moretton stepped into the management of sporting events and undertook two long treks to Nepal before being persuaded by friends to run for the presidency of the federation.
Although he comes from Lyon, he also considers Roland Garros a home. At age 12, he was sleeping in a tent on site when he played in a national junior tournament. He lived on the premises a year later and shared a small cottage with other prospective French professionals, including Yannick Noah.
Noah won the French Open in 1983 and is the last Frenchman to do so. Moretton will now try to help develop Noah’s successor and make the rest of his four-year term smoother than the beginning.