There is one thing that Ukrainian and Russian players seem to be able to agree on at Roland Garros: the public has been more hostile than ever this year.
Russia’s Daria Kasatkina was knocked out on Sunday night and kicked out on Monday after becoming the latest player to be booed off the pitch, following her fourth-round exit.
She had offended Court Suzanne Lenglen by not participating in the handshake ritual with her Ukrainian opponent Elina Svitolina. However, as Kasatkina – a sympathetic figure – explains, she only did this because she understands the stance taken by players in the beleaguered country.
“Leaving Paris with a very bitter feeling,” she tweeted. “All these days, after every game I played in Paris, I always appreciated and thanked the public for their support and their presence for the players. But yesterday I was booed for simply respecting the position of my opponent not to shake his hand Leaving the court like this was the worst moment yesterday.
It happened time and time again these fortnight, in an event that began with another Ukrainian, Marta Kostyuk, booed and jeered at in a similar incident.
Russian Daria Kasatkina booed by crowd despite giving Elina Svitolina a thumbs up
Kasatkina took to Twitter after the match and said she was ‘leaving Paris with a very bitter feeling’
Everyone from Novak Djokovic, pictured, to Cameron Norrie felt the derision of the crowd
“People should be honestly embarrassed,” she said. ‘ I want to see people react to it in ten years when the war is over. I think they won’t really feel good about what they did.
This phenomenon of 2023 went far beyond anything related to the Ukraine-Russia issue. Everyone from Novak Djokovic – accustomed to being a polarizing figure – to Britain’s relatively mild-mannered Cam Norrie have been the subject of derision.
At one point during his first-round match against Benoit Paire, the crowd was so fired up that they burst into a rendition of La Marseillaise mid-game.
As any long-time visitor to Roland Garros knows, it’s a very different animal to its British Wimbledon counterpart. The crowds are always more passionate and intense with, basically, more knowledge of the game.
There is a history of turning against players they disapprove of in the 16th arrondissement, but it has never been more strident than this year. It’s not on the same level as the vile personal abuse that footballers suffer, but in a sport where you have to play for hours on end alone, being booed and hissed at can still be debilitating.
The reasons why this happens are multiple and are not always related only to the world of tennis.
Two of them are quite simple. The weather this year has been fantastic, creating in itself a bubbling atmosphere. Second, beer is more freely available with the installation of newly introduced beer vending machines, and staff walking around with rucksacks offering refills, almost as if you were at a place like the Cheltenham Festival.
In a country that has a really deep sense of tennis, there is also frustration over the inability to produce a genuine title contender. The many French also-rans had strong support to try to push them on which, as Norrie discovered, can turn into a mood of outright hostility.
A seasoned French journalist also pointed to more abstract causes as to why the character of the place seems to have changed.
The weather and greater availability of beer contributed to a more intense atmosphere
Norrie faced hostility from the crowd when he faced Frenchman Benoit Paire in the first round
Taylor Fritz was booed by the crowd after knocking out France’s last hope in men’s singles
Spectators flocked to the higher capacity venues throughout this year’s tournament
“I think there’s an element of people expressing themselves more and letting off steam after Covid,” he said. He also pointed to the scale of the number of spectators flocking to larger capacity stadiums and coming in and out for the new separate night session.
There could also be another intangible this year: no Rafael Nadal and no Roger Federer. Both are regarded with respect in France, and they have a following of their own. It could be that the purist element among tennis fans is slightly reduced this year, with a higher percentage of more rambunctious entrants not so transfixed by those coming in to replace them.
And there is a wider context of public protests around the country, with the latest national strike due to take place on Tuesday.
It will be interesting to see if this kind of behavior carries over to Wimbledon, probably not. Roland Garros still risks generating a more feverish atmosphere, but not up to this eventful year.