At the French Open, it 'seems like a normal life is starting over again'

PARIS -- On Day 3 of this year's French Open, Gael Monfils stood, arms aloft, soaking in the applause from the crowd on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Eight months after Roland Garros was held with only 1,000 fans allowed on-site each day, here was one of France's favorite sons, lapping up the adoration from a larger crowd on a warm, sunny day.

If it wasn't quite like old times, it was close.

"It was incredible, incredible," Monfils said. "Even though it was not like a full crowd, it was enough to make a decent spirit, you know.

"I could feel their energy. It definitely made me so happy. Cannot be happier than that. I was missing the crowd."

Though Roland Garros in 2021 is still well below capacity -- a total of 5,388 fans have been allowed in the gates each day, split across six sectors of the site -- the tournament feels more like normal. And with a capacity increase looming, things are looking up.

Fans and media still have to wear masks and there are strict protocols for players, who have to stay in designated hotels. But the newly built Roland Garros shop, a vast underground expanse near where the famous old Court No. 1 used to be, has been buzzing, while amenities are open all around the grounds.

Guy Forget, the tournament director, credits the return to playing in the traditional season after last year's switch to October because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think it's because it's spring in Paris and people are a bit fed up with all the pandemic restrictions and the curfews and everything being closed," Forget told ESPN.

"And even though we have a very limited number of people in the stadium, you can see the smiles on their faces whenever people enter the grounds and go through the gates. They're just so happy to be there. They wear a mask but at the same time, you feel such a relief, seems like a normal life is starting over again."

The increase in the number of fans seems to have made a big difference to the players.

"It was really enjoyable to be back out on Philippe Chatrier," said Ash Barty, who eventually had to pull out during her second-round match because of injury.

"I think with fans, even though at times it was only a sprinkling, it was still really nice to be able to share that with them and kind of enjoy that, being back out on that beautiful court."

Though players have been largely restricted to moving between their hotels and the site or practice facilities, they also have been allowed to spend one hour per day outside for exercise and relaxation.

Paula Badosa, the Spaniard who reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal before falling, said that's been an additional perk.

"I think that helps because in a Grand Slam [especially], you have a lot of pressure and you're super-focused when you're on-site. So to have that hour to disconnect, I think it's quite good and I think the players need that," she said. "That helps you relax a little bit and stop thinking about tennis 24 hours a day."

Iga Swiatek, the defending women's champion, agreed.

"It is different this year," she said. "We kind of got used to the COVID restrictions. So right now we're feeling more, you know, free because right now, this is the reality."

Paris has also had a 9 p.m. curfew in place for the first 11 days of the tournament, which meant that the first nine official night sessions -- new for 2021 -- have been held behind closed doors.

Matches on outside courts have also been disrupted, with the odd sight of fans being ushered out of the arenas before the curfew, leaving players, including Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, to carry on in front of empty stands.

"That was horrible," Forget said. "And it's horrible not only for the tournament [and the players], it's horrible for the fans. Because they're booing and in a way they are fighting the law and the government, you can feel it, it's real anger. They still do it, but there's so much frustration. They probably think, how much longer is it going to last?

"On a few occasions, players had to sit down for five, 10 minutes before everybody was gone. When you are into a match and you have that momentum going and you really focus on your game and your sensation and you have to sit on a chair for 10 minutes, you kind of lose it a bit. It's really hard, I guess, for everyone."

On Wednesday, government rules begin to be relaxed, and the maximum number of fans will rise to 13,146 permitted on-site. Only people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, those who have had a PCR or antigen test in the past 48 hours, or those who have had COVID-19 more than two weeks ago but less than six months ago will be let in.

The Paris curfew will be also moved back to 11 p.m., with up to 5,000 fans allowed inside the main Court Philippe Chatrier for the last official night session, which will be between Novak Djokovic and Matteo Berrettini.

Forget said he hopes that in 2022, Roland Garros will be completely back to normal.

"When we had the tournament in October, I never thought this was going to be an issue again," he said. "I thought, next edition, we'll have full capacity, people everywhere. We'll have a night session, it'll be wonderful, and here we are.

"It's very hard to predict. I'd like to be optimistic. And I think we should because I believe that it with the vaccination and sanitary [measures] and everything that's put in place ... the numbers are going down a big time in France and I think around Europe.

"Hopefully by next year, 12 months down the road, we should be in a better place. Keeping fingers crossed."