For the past three weeks of isolation, Stan Wawrinka and Benoît Paire have spent much of their idle time talking on Instagram. They invariably log in with a glass in hand, giggling and trading stories as they drink together and entertain their followers. Wawrinka of Switzerland is much more famous and the superior tennis player, but in this setting Paire, a bearded six feet five inches of sheer eccentricity, is the focal point. During their latest conversation, a fan asked whether they had ever had sex within an hour of a match. As an amused Wawrinka sipped and revealed nothing, Paire shrugged and said: “Yes. It never bothered me.”
In some ways, Paire, a Frenchman currently ranked 22nd, is a reflection of the disruptive, entertaining role that France plays in tennis. As with most male French tennis players, his game is a volatile marriage of flamboyance and self-destruction. Paire is as likely to scythe an opponent to pieces with a million perfect drop shots as he is to be booed off the court at home by his own supporters after another trademark meltdown. Between Paire, Gaël Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, French players are agents of chaos on the court.
Away from the courts, the Fédération Française de Tennis acts as a courier of commotion in its own way. When Maria Sharapova returned in 2017 amid deafening arguments about whether she should be granted wildcards after her doping ban, the FFT president Bernard Giudicelli decided to reveal the French Open wildcards, and her rejection, via a Facebook live broadcast. In 2018, Giudicelli was found guilty of defamation towards a former French player. After consequently being deemed ineligible from the ITF board for four years, he took the ITF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Last month, in the middle of a quiet Tuesday afternoon, the FFT set fire to the tennis world by announcing that it was unilaterally uprooting the French Open from May to September, two weeks after the US Open. The ATP and WTA were blindsided, players were in shock and other tournaments were threatened. As things stand, the French Open sits on the same dates as nine ATP and WTA events.
The consequences of chaos have been fascinating. After the cancellation of Indian Wells on 9 March, initially, the tours could not even agree on a sufficient provisional period of suspension; the ATP erased six weeks of tournaments shortly after Indian Wells, the ITF settled on five weeks and the WTA slowly culled its calendar week by week. The disjointed reactions of the governing bodies further reflected a broken system.
The rogue French Open forced the various governing bodies to unite for a coordinated response and it seems to have reaffirmed the need for closer cooperation. As the coronavirus outbreak continues to unfold, the ATP and WTA now work in unison and send out joint statements. On Friday the tours took things further by announcing “Tennis United”, a Youtube web show featuring male and female players together. Presently, the ATP and WTA social media accounts don identical avatars and coordinated posts.
These are irrelevant details to the wider sporting audience but it is a surreal sight to see them directly cooperating and happily packaging the sport as one. Tennis is alucrative, rare top-level sport where the men and women enter the same spaces, battle in the same arenas and, in the biggest events, earn the same money, but their joint presence has usually led to friction.
“I think [male players] have been really tough, especially when it came to equality, as a general point,” said Maria Sharapova last year. “I mean, sitting at a press conference in Wimbledon five, seven years ago, there was not a lot of warmth coming from that side or that perspective. That’s tough.”
Last week the new ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi gave his first extensive interview since his appointment. Gaudenzi was clear about his intention to pursue unity in the sport and perhaps his most striking comment was his discussion of the business opportunities ahead. Rather than mentioning only his organisation, he reframed the entire discussion by positing the popularity of the women’s game as an asset to embrace rather than as an obstacle to surmount.
“We are a top five sport both in the men’s and in the women’s game, while other sports revolve almost exclusively around men,” he said. “We can spend the next few years fighting over leftovers, while there is a world of opportunity out there.”
Dysfunction has been the prevailing topic in tennis since its inception. As tennis, like many other sports, comes to terms with one of its most serious crises, a silver lining of chaos is that it has forced its stakeholders to confront these existential problems together. The question is whether these new alliances will endure.