'Strange mix': Lucky fans weirded out by empty French Open

A stadium employee looks out over empty seats during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, F...
Spectators with face masks watch a first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Sunday, Sept....
A person passes center court Philippe Chatrier during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, ...
The image on a billboard of spectators with straw hats walking the sunny lanes of the Roland Garros grounds contrasts with the changed reality as spec...
A lone spectator passes a rain puddle under cold and damp weather conditions during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Ro...
Venus Williams of the U.S. plays a shot against Slovakia's Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at ...
Empty seats are seen during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Sunday, Sept. 27, ...

A stadium employee looks out over empty seats during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, F...

Spectators with face masks watch a first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Sunday, Sept....

A person passes center court Philippe Chatrier during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, ...

The image on a billboard of spectators with straw hats walking the sunny lanes of the Roland Garros grounds contrasts with the changed reality as spec...

A lone spectator passes a rain puddle under cold and damp weather conditions during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Ro...

Venus Williams of the U.S. plays a shot against Slovakia's Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at ...

Empty seats are seen during first round matches of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Sunday, Sept. 27, ...

PARIS (AP) — When the email landed to say they had been selected to be among the very few spectators allowed into Roland Garros this year, Jean-Baptiste Guinchard and his sister Anne-Lise were so astounded to have luck that good that they immediately went out and bought lottery tickets.

As it turned out, their lottery picks weren't winners. But the siblings still counted themselves hugely fortunate to have been among the privileged few in attendance for the mostly weird, partly wonderful start Sunday of the French Open, pushed back from May-June to an unfamiliar autumn slot and robbed of nearly all its spectators by the coronavirus.

Ticket-holders, capped at just 1,000 per day, found themselves disconcerted, lacking bearings, as they rattled almost alone around the usually jam-packed Roland Garros tournament site on Paris' western fringes, with a luxury of empty seats and their pick of matches to choose from.

With hardly anyone to cater to, food and drink stalls were closed and usually crowded aisles were empty, giving the place the feel of a damp and deserted out-of-season resort.

“It's surreal, so strange,” said Jean-Baptiste Guinchard, a theater actor. ”There is no atmosphere."

Still, he and his sister were still of the glass-half-full opinion that even an unrecognizable French Open was better than no French Open at all. That was the route taken by Wimbledon, canceled this year.

The siblings milked the unique experience by roaming the grounds, watching games here, points there. When first informed Friday that their tickets were still valid, among those picked out in the organizers' draw, the sister said it felt like “the planets are aligned” — prompting their subsequent decision to then also buy lottery tickets.

“Sport, I missed it so much in lockdown,” she said. “For people's well-being, it's important.”

But huddling against the cold in the central Philippe Chatrier arena, under its airy new roof that kept its clay court dry when rain stopped play elsewhere, Camille Criton wasn't so sure that the two-week Grand Slam tournament should still be going ahead amid France's worsening epidemic.

She, too, had considered herself so lucky when told that she been picked among those still allowed to attend. Organizers, just three weeks ago, were hoping for 11,500 spectators per day. But as the nationwide daily count of new virus cases soared, that was cut to 5,000 and then, last week, to 1,000. They include 750 drawn by lottery and the rest either sponsors’ guests or VIPs.

But Roland Garros with face masks, hand gel, mostly empty seats and hostile weather turned out not to feel like Roland Garros at all for Criton, a 27-year-old marketing executive. After watching 19-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner beat David Goffin in the first match on Chatrier, with roughly 400 spectators in the stadium built for 15,000, she said: "It’s not at all the same. It’s only half Roland Garros.”

"It should have been canceled,” she said.

Still, Sinner was grateful for the thin applause that echoed around the cavernous space. He said tennis needs crowds.

Venus Williams agreed, after a handful of people watched her lose 6-4, 6-4 to Anna Schmiedlova on the smaller Simonne Mathieu court.

“At this point, grateful for any fans that are here," Williams said. "Miss them desperately.”

Wrapped up warm against the stiff breezes, spectator Arnaud Cecillon reveled in the intimacy of sharing Roland Garros with so few other people, so much so that “it’s like being a member of staff."

On Court 7, he was able to get up close to see 21st-seeded John Isner beat French wild card Elliot Benchetrit in straight sets, without the need to elbow through crowds.

"It's a strange mix," he said. “Sad on the one hand for the players. But also a chance to see things we don't usually see, that we don't have access to.”

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