ROLAND GARROS — “They would boo a butterfly,” the BBC’s tennis correspondent said this week, after Cameron Norrie was jeered for having the temerity to warm up before playing Lucas Pouille in the French Open second round.
It’s true, the Roland Garros crowd are one of the most discerning in the world, and traditionally it does not take much to get them riled up. Last year, I distinctly remember one day someone fainted in the crowd and needed medical attention. The match stopped, and after a few minutes, they were helped to their feet and made it out of the stand under their own steam. The reaction? Some polite applause drowned out by boos.
But is it playful? Or is it pernicious? I decided there was only one way to find out: spend a day observing the crowd on Philippe Chatrier, Paris’s equivalent of Centre Court. It would be a gruelling, 12-hour session but I was willing to put my body on the line in the name of research.
11am: I forgot that Court Philippe Chatrier starts 45 minutes later than every other court at Roland Garros, so I have arrived nearly an hour early for my marathon day. One bag of peanuts and a couple of ripe green pommes may not be enough.
11.45am: Our first match is 2022 finalist Casper Ruud against Giulio Zeppieri, a 21-year-old Italian playing in the second round of a grand slam for the first time. Philippe Chatrier is about half full as Ruud hits the first serve, despite the fact that the cheapest tickets go for just over £60, and most cost a lot more. The glass-fronted hospitality suites look full, but the seats adjacent to them are largely empty. Champagne is flowing. Tennis is secondary.
12.15pm: Ruud has to pull out of a second serve because a woman in an enormous hat has decided 15-0 is the moment to leave her seat in the fourth row and head downstairs. This would never happen at Wimbledon, a voice behind me mutters. But this isn’t Wimbledon.
1pm: All quite subdued at the moment, mostly because Zeppieri is not putting up much of a fight. One man has just shouted “vamo Rafa” though while waving a Spanish flag, which was quite amusing. Nadal’s absence is clearly quite keenly felt.
1.50pm: Zeppieri is arguing with the umpire over a mark after a Ruud serve clips the line, but the crowd is so unengaged with this match that there is barely so much as a whistle. A few boos eventually uttered as he reluctantly heads back to the baseline but sadly it feels as though most of the crowd are struggling to care enough to jeer.
2.15pm: The Italian pinches a set to wake everyone up. Not that they want Ruud to lose, but I think they would like a contest. And they’ve finished their lunch now so everyone is a bit more interested again.
2.55pm: They’ve eaten, they’ve drunk, they’ve sunbathed, at last Chatrier is alive, because Zeppieri is trying to stay in the match, down 5-4 in the fourth. Swinging with freedom, he finds a brilliant couple of forehand winners and breaks back, pumping his fists in celebration. Even the corporate boxes enjoyed that one.
3.05pm: Zeppieri’s resistance is short-lived and Ruud completes victory in a shade over three hours. The crowd rises in appreciation, and having just about filled up, they will now all file out again for coffee and cigarettes. “Beautiful weather, beautiful Paris,” says Ruud, drawing the crowd out of their shell a little.
3.30pm: World No 1 Iga Swiatek has arrived to some acclaim. Not raucous though.
3.40pm: Behind me, some TV people are having a slightly-too-loud conversation. Some tutting, shushing and glaring follows and they relent. Thought they might start booing for a second…
4pm: It’s prime nap time. Even the thousands of revolutions on Swiatek’s forehand can’t distract some in the most expensive seats (where white is the colour of the season, by the way) from nodding off. Embarrassing for tournament sponsor Lavazza, who would prefer they were looking wired and peppy. I think you can forgive the crowd for being a little subdued at the moment. Swiatek is just miles better than Claire Liu and she isn’t even playing that well.
4.45pm: I’ve run out of peanuts.
5.05pm: Iga Swiatek seals victory 6-4 6-0. An unspectacular, business-like performance. Nothing to set the city on fire on a warm, sleepy summer’s afternoon.
5.30pm: Here we go then, the only French player left in the women’s draw Oceane Dodin is playing. Thing is, Ons Jabeur is very popular here too. Crowd may well be a bit torn.
5.45pm: At last, the booing begins! The umpire runs down to check a mark in the clay, rules against Dodin and the crowd let her know all about it. Is it pantomime? Is it heartfelt? Tough to boo with nuance. Coach Patrick Mouratoglou says: “I don’t understand why people are booing the player who asks to see a mark on clay. It becomes systematic. There is nothing wrong about it and sometimes the chair umpire will change his call after looking at it.”
6pm: Another mark controversy, and then one over a first serve, and now the crowd are in full voice. There is a French player involved, of course, but perhaps also we have had just the right amount of sun and 1664 lager to create a more rowdy atmosphere.
6.30pm: More booing as a Jabeur backhand hits the top of the net and drops dead for a winner to break serve. Even as Jabeur walks to her chair after winning the game, she is jeered by the crowd. That’s just silly.
6.40pm: Jabeur eventually extinguishes the French challenge in the women’s draw at Roland Garros with a straight-sets win. The crowd begrudgingly applaud.
6.45pm: The speedy tennis means I can have an hour and a half away from the court, a hot dinner and pop into press conference. I ask Ons about the crowd booing her for a net cord, completely beyond her control. “Definitely not the best to have those reaction with booing and everything, even though hitting the net is part of the game. It was luck.
“The most tricky thing was during the match is not to get involved with them because as soon as you react to what they’re doing, it’s going to get heated. That’s what happened with other players. I know they [the crowd] will try anything to get me out of the match.”
7.15pm: I wander onto the concourse and chat to some fans. A Parisian named Jean-Luc has, like me, spent the whole day on Chatrier (apart from copious coffees and snacks). Did he boo Ons’s net cord?
“Er, yeah, I think so?”
“Everyone else was booing. Not because we don’t like her, but she was not the one we wanted to win.”
Could you not just have said nothing at all?
“I can do that at home!”
It’s hard logic to argue with, especially in my AS-level French.
8.15pm: The evening session. A whole new set of fans and the emergence of a small brass band about 25 feet away. The noise-cancelling headphones may be required.
8.40pm: Zverev has an early lead. Somewhere over my shoulder, the last remaining Frenchman in the draw is playing on Suzanne Lenglen. Sounds fiery. But I’m here, where Zverev has an early lead.
9.10pm: Tennis purists look away now, but the biggest cheer of the day comes as Zverev hits a tweener cleanly, only to lose the point anyway.
9.40pm: Someone trumpets during Zverev’s serve, but there is no chastisement from the umpire. That’s just part of playing in Paris. Deal with it.
10.10pm: The other side of the Paris crowd comes out now. Molcan is 4-0 down in the third but one away from his first game. The crowd rise before his serve – but he misses it, and gestures as if to say “I’m sorry, it’s not going well!”. Laughs all round, and he celebrates as if he has won the match when he holds a point later.
10.20pm: Someone just asked Zverev to “hit a double-fault please” before his second serve, which is out of order. But they do just want another set of tennis. He did not oblige.
10.30pm: Zverev wins, and hands the Chatrier crowd a backhanded compliment: “The atmosphere we get here we get nowhere else in the world.” He adds: “It’s not nice when you guys are against us, it is very hostile. Maybe for the next 10 days I can become French.”
11pm: As it turned out, Zverev got on lightly. Over on Suzanne Lenglen, Taylor Fritz was getting the Cam Norrie experience of taking on a Frenchman in front of 10,000 partisan fans. He did not opt for the Jabeur approach, but rather the polar opposite, holding his fingers to his lips and shushing the crowd unrepentantly after completing a four-set win to knock out the last Frenchman standing. He even did it in his post-match interview on court.
Earlier in the week, Coco Gauff took the opposite approach. “I love the French people,” she said. “I know some people don’t like you guys, but I love you guys.”
11.30pm: I am wandering home and wondering what I have learned from my day with the booers? Firstly, Chatrier – with its endless corporate boxes – is far less hostile than Suzanne Lenglen, which only holds 5,000 fans fewer and even the front row seats are available for a relatively low price.
Secondly, it has almost become a reason to come to the tennis, to boo, to whistle, to sing, to cheer. Does it overstep the mark? Very rarely, and most of the time it is a glorified pantomime. If you want to play the villain, Parisians will oblige. If you want to play the hero, all you have to do is ask.
And finally, would the French Open crowd boo a butterfly? Probably, if it stopped one of their own winning a point.