French Open 2016: Rain and schedule test Djokovic, Radwanska, Halep and more

Roland Garros has been coping with its own slice of history in this rain-soaked, storm-struck French Open championships

It will probably be little consolation to world No1 Novak Djokovic that Roland Garros has been coping with its own slice of history in this rain-soaked, storm-struck French Open championships.

Week one began badly enough with a soaking opening Sunday and it ended in similar fashion on a thunder-and-lighting Saturday.

The top seed, and favourite to win his first title here, may even count himself fortunate that he completed his third match after that Saturday schedule shunted him from Philippe Chatrier to Suzanne Lenglen and back to Chatrier. He dispatched the feisty challenge of Aljaz Bedene just before the gloom became too deep. As he put it afterwards: “We went deep into night. I think we played to the maximum extent of time we could [for] the light. I’m just glad I managed to finish tonight.”

Players the next day were not so lucky. Women’s No2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska and No6 seed Simona Halep were halted in their fourth rounds by the light—and then the trouble really began. Rain sat over Paris for 36 hours, and for the first time in 16 years, an entire day was washed out.

Come Tuesday, come more rain, and the schedule slipped past midday as four women awaited their chance to seal a quarter-final place, all kicking their heels in the bowels of their respective show-courts. It felt like a J Alfred Prufrock moment: “Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

But the covers came off, covers went on, and then came off again, while optimistic dots of figures sat beneath umbrellas to take tableau. And eventually, four wrapped-up figures tried to hit the damp, cold ground running.

Perhaps not surprising, then, that Halep gave up a 5-3 lead to Sam Stosur, who raced to the opening-set tie-break, 7-6(0), nor that Radwanska gave up a 3-0 advantage in the second set against Tsvetana Pironkova, who ran through six straight games to level the match, 2-6, 6-3.

Amid the delays and uncertainty, Djokovic prepared to play his own fourth-round match against his first seeded opponent, No14 Roberto Bautista Agut—a full two days after the bottom half of the draw, headed by Andy Murray, had already made its way to the quarter-finals.

Amid a long list of firsts that the Serbian superstar had ticked off during this year’s visit to Roland Garros—a 50th French Open match-win, a 40th match-win this year, his 200th week at No1 and, by the end of the tournament, his 100th consecutive week at the top of the pile—he was looking to reaffirm his status as one of the most consistently high-performing men in the tennis. With a 28th Grand Slam quarter-final here, he would move into second place, ahead of Jimmy Connors and behind Roger Federer, for the most consecutive final-eight runs in the Majors in the Open era. He would also join Andre Agassi in third place for the total number of Grand Slam quarter-finals, 36 of them.

But first, he had not only to get on court but to win three sets.

He and Bautista Agut did eventually achieve the first, at well after midday, but even allowing for the heavy conditions, Djokovic should have been confident. He had beaten the late-maturing 28-year-old in all four previous matches, and in Madrid only last month, the Spaniard picked up just three games.

Bautista Agut had reached the fourth round before, indeed at his last three Majors, but he had never done so in Paris: This was new ground. But it appeared to be ground on which he felt comfortable.

He broke Djokovic in the fourth game, and although Djokovic broke back straight away, the Spaniard broke again for 5-3. Play had already been halted on Lenglen, but these two played on through increasing rain just long enough for Djokovic to fail to convert a break back point. Against the odds, Bautista Agut strode off court after 36 minutes with a one-set lead, 6-3.

In fairness, it had been an uninspiring affair thus far. Each had managed seven winners and the error count outshone those be a distance: Djokovic 15 unforced, Bautista Agut 11. No aces and two double faults each added to the unhappy mix.

How long would they wait to return to a match that perhaps should not have begun at all? First, it would be in an hour. By 2pm, it had been extended by another hour.

No doubt players and their coaches checked and cross-checked the forecasts as often as ticket-holders, officials and the media. It has been a tough week and a half for all of them, but especially for the man who only took over the reins as tournament director here at the end of February, Guy Forget.

Aside from the loss through injury of two of tennis’s most bankable stars, Federer and Rafael Nadal—and all but one of the 26 French men and women in the draws out before the fourth round—he has found himself defending decisions about the development of Roland Garros that have been outside his influence. No court here has a roof—nor will have before 2020 at the earliest—and none has lighting. So when either dusk or rain falls, the tennis stops.

By the time all the players re-emerged at well after 3pm, the umbrellas were still up—and Djokovic borrowed one of them, smiled, and then wandered off the court again.

For the fourth-round men and women—and that included top seed Serena Williams as well as Djokovic—it was becoming essential to complete their matches, or they and the tournament faced back-to-back matches for the rest of the week.

So return they did…

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