Players bursting the 'bubble' of the 2020 French Open

While not completely thrilled with the French Open atmosphere, American Sam Querrey is trying to make the best of a difficult situation. Julian Finney/Getty Images

Sam Querrey and his wife, Abby, who welcomed their first child in February, could be the poster parents for young families trying to lead normal lives during the coronavirus pandemic. Fully aware of the health hazards and committed to exercising great caution, the Querreys decided to travel as a family with their 7-month-old son, Ford, to Paris so Sam could compete in the 2020 French Open.

"It's not fun being in the bubble. It's Paris, but not Paris," Sam Querrey said Tuesday at Roland Garros, referring to the health and safety restrictions that have ruled out dining out or sightseeing along the River Seine. "You're either at the courts or in your small European hotel room with a ton of bags."

Like almost all of his peers, Querrey qualifies his complaints about the restrictions with the rider that, first and foremost, he's thrilled to be able to play again. But a host of concerns underlies the general sense of gratitude felt by most of the pros, and their obvious willingness to make the best of the challenges posed by the health crisis.

Those challenges led to the USTA hosting the US Open (along with the Western & Southern Open) with no fans inside a bio-secure "bubble" created at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The French Open, postponed from its customary late-May start, adopted similar measures. But the approach in Paris has created some anxiety, along with some tenable claims that the French Open has no real "bubble" at all.

Comparisons between the two events and the protocols they adopted were inevitable and not entirely fair to the French Open, where officials have avoided using the word "bubble" in favor of "safe zones."

"To make a true bubble, either at the US Open or here, would need a hotel with 10,000 rooms," Querrey said. "You would need everyone who's on-site, from cleaning crews to chefs and anyone else in contact with players to stay there. You would need the MGM Grand [an enormous hotel in Las Vegas] or something like that, But either way, they did a good job here and in New York."

Others haven't been as charitable, expressing reservations or outright criticism of the French approach. Some have challenged just how protected the "safe zones" are, and how comfortable the players have been made to feel. The players have been subject to recurring testing for COVID-19 at both majors, but that is where the similarities end.

Much of the worry among players has centered on the tournament organizers' insistence on allowing fans, a number that was whittled down in increments from the original projected 20,000 to just 1,000 due to a local spike in the coronavirus.

"I feel like, as all players, [we] are a little bit nervous about the health situation ... [and] having these circumstances," US Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka said during her pre-tournament press conference in Paris, referring to the tournament's insistence on allowing fans.

"In my opinion the US Open was a little better," Japan's Misaki Doi said Wednesday. "There were no [untested] spectators and also less people and more social distancing."

The USTA decided to allow players to live in rented homes rather than at either of the two official player hotels, provided they abide by the same restrictions that applied to their peers. They also were forced to hire approved security personnel to monitor compliance, so the cost became prohibitive for almost all players. The French ruled that all players -- including those such as Serena Williams who own a private residence in Paris must stay in the official player hotel, the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel.

"If there are fans, then we should be able to stay elsewhere then," Williams said following one of her matches at the fan-free US Open. "That's interesting, because there is no private housing -- but there's fans."

Williams conformed to the rules, as did the other major star who stayed privately during the US Open, Novak Djokovic.

Fans in Paris are obliged to wear masks, but the lucky 1,000 have the run of the grounds as far as spectating goes. Fears that the play would be lackluster if there were few or no fans have been wiped out. It's surprising how uplifting it has been for players to see and hear -- someone, anyone -- in the stands. Tens, dozens, and in some cases hundreds have been scattered around the courts in Paris.

"To be honest, it was actually quite a good little atmosphere on the court," British star Dan Evans said following his five-set first-round loss to Kei Nishikori. "I thought there was a little pocket of Japanese guys and girls who were [junior players] from the tournament. The same with the Brits. I think a few spectators from the public were there. So it was pretty good."

Unlike the US Open, Roland Garros committed to presenting a full palette of competitive draws including qualifying and juniors, although there will be no mixed doubles. That has made for somewhat crowded conditions at the two "safe zone" facilities, the main grounds (officially, the Stade Roland Garros) and the nearby Jean-Bouin training centre. Players were told to show up at Roland Garros on only days when they had official matches, but that has proved problematic.

"It's impossible not to come here if you want to get rackets strung or get laundry done," Querrey said. "It would be impossible to enforce those rules, but then nobody is lingering around at Roland Garros. There are no coaches in the locker room. Everybody is acting responsibly."

Although a number of players, including Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco and Damir Dzumhur, were kept out of the tournament after testing positive for the coronavirus, no player in any of the main draws has tested positive thus far. But nobody has denied that the French approach, with its looser regulations, also carries enhanced risk.

"Here nothing really has changed [from] a normal tournament except that there is less people," Alexander Zverev said after his second-round win. "We still have our players' areas. We don't have the entertainment that we did in New York. The hotel is not really a bubble."

The players are theoretically shielded from mingling with the general population of guests at the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel, with entire floors of the hotel as well as dining areas reserved for their exclusive use. But many have shared elevators with a number of non-playing guests. Waiters shuttle between the player and all-access dining rooms. Zverev said that he's living next door to "regular" guests who are "staying there with souvenirs every single day that they come, you know, from the Eiffel Tower and stuff like that."

Zverev added, "You can't compare the bubbles. New York, they wanted to impress us players. They wanted to do something amazing, which I honestly think they have [done]."

Zverev went on to describe the diversions and dining and entertainment options at the New York hotels where they were forced to stay when not at the National Tennis Center. Those included, among other things, arcade games, mini-golf, basketball hoops, massive television viewing screens and different food trucks every day.

"It felt like a massive camping trip with all the tennis players," Zverev said. "The on-site stuff was [also] amazing."

As a seeded player at the US Open, Zverev also was given the use of one of the prime sponsor suites overlooking the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium. With no fans and a reduced number of events, the players had the run of the entire, amenity-loaded, 46.5 acre site (compared to 21 acres at Roland Garros).

Vasek Pospisil is co-president (with top-ranked Djokovic) of a budding new player organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). On Sunday at Roland Garros, he expressed his disappointment with the lack of player amenities as well as the restrictions on activity, indicating that it was the kind of issue that might ultimately fall within the purview of the PTPA.

"It's not easy because you can't even get fresh air [at the site or the hotel]," Pospisil said. He added almost all the players he has spoken to share the opinion that French Open organizers didn't do enough to "make the time in the bubble a little bit more comfortable."

The conditions have affected players differently. David Goffin, the No. 11 seed, said after he lost his first-round match to Jannik Sinner on Sunday: "The most difficult thing for me [during the pandemic] is to be fresh mentally on the court and to save energy to give everything on the court. That's why I think today it was the toughest part. It's just that I was a little bit empty, no energy today."

Others, such as Querrey's compatriot and friend John Isner, don't feel a comparable measure of stress, and feel safe despite the many holes in the bubble. Isner, who lost to American upstart Sebastian Korda in the second round, is one of the pros who has posed for pictures with fans in front of the player hotel.

"The players are safe here. They were safe in New York as well. It's all good," Isner said. "I think it's important not to freak out too much if someone gets too close to you. We keep our distance. Our masks are on. It's totally safe."

Safe, perhaps, but not as fun as before. Simona Halep celebrated her 29th birthday on the day she won her first-round match at Roland Garros. Halep, who won her first major in Paris, said it was "special day."

As for any planned celebration, that was put on hold.

"I have to stay in the room," she said. "So I will have a bottle of water."