PARIS — Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, removed his mask and leaned into the conversation across a vast table Tuesday morning at Roland Garros.
Three months in, Moretton’s term is not exactly off to a flying start. The French Open, run by his organization, has been blessed with sunshine through most of its first 10 days, but not much else.
Pandemic restrictions have reduced the number of spectators allowed on the grounds and cut deeply into revenue just as the federation needed to start paying back hundreds of millions of euros borrowed for the recent renovations at Roland Garros. For the first time in history, no French singles player made it past the second round. The biggest story of the tournament’s first 10 days has been not the matches played, some of them outstanding, but the ones never started.
There was the second-round withdrawal of Naomi Osaka, the brightest rising star in the women’s game, following a disagreement with Moretton and other Grand Slam tournament leaders over media duties. Roger Federer, still the biggest draw in the men’s game at age 39, withdrew after three rounds to preserve his postoperative right knee and his energy for Wimbledon.
But Moretton, who was once good enough to face Bjorn Borg at the French Open (taking a loss), did not bemoan his timing during an interview in the presidential box with a grand view of the main stadium, Philippe Chatrier Court, however empty.
“I have come in at a time when the situation is very difficult because of the pandemic and the results in French tennis,” he said. “But at the same time I see that as an extraordinary opportunity. Because we have a saying that when you are at the bottom of the pool, you are bound to start heading back toward the surface.”
Moretton defended the handling of the second-seeded Osaka’s refusal to participate in news conferences and other mandatory media duties, an announcement she made through social media ahead of the French Open that caught the Grand Slam officials by surprise.
Osaka’s initial announcement mentioned a need to preserve her mental health, without offering specifics. According to several tennis officials, Osaka did not respond to multiple requests to explain the situation further. She was fined $15,000 for skipping one post-match news conference in Paris. Moretton and the leaders of the three other Grand Slam tournaments — Wimbledon and the Australian and United States Opens — then issued a stern statement that warned of escalating penalties, including a potential expulsion from the tournament if she continued to abstain.
“I think we did very, very well,” Moretton said, adding that the officials had hoped to avoid expelling Osaka. “The goal was not to penalize her. It was to say clearly: Here’s the rule.”
Osaka withdrew the next day via social media, where she explained that she had experienced long bouts of depression since winning the U.S. Open in 2018.
Rennae Stubbs, a former player who is a coach and an ESPN analyst, said the French federation had “handled this horribly.” She and other former players said the officials should have shown more sensitivity and avoided publicly threatening to penalize Osaka.
“I think we would have kept giving her fines,” Moretton said. “I don’t think we would have gone to a tougher sanction, because we understood the situation. But it’s the rule. The rule is there to be fair to all the players.”
Osaka has since announced that she would take a break of indeterminate length from the tour.
Moretton, 63, said he was concerned about players’ mental health. “The problem she raised is a real problem, a real topic for discussion,” he said.
But he said he was also concerned about preserving equal treatment among players and the news media’s ability to cover the sport.
“Perhaps we will change the rules, and then everyone only comes to press if they want to,” Moretton said. “You will see that there are not many who will come.”
“Everyone will be their own journalist,” he added, “speak when they want to speak, say what they want to say, respond only to questions they want to answer. And I think it’s a serious problem. So yes of course to measures that will provide help and support to players, but let’s keep the freedom of the press to ask a question that might be uncomfortable and that interests the public, who are the ones who provide a living for the athletes and the personalities.”
As for Federer’s withdrawal, Moretton said he had “too much respect for Roger” to question his decision. Federer was not fined for the withdrawal. Guy Forget, the French Open tournament director, told the French news organization L’Équipe that Federer had cited his knee as an official medical reason for his withdrawal.
“Everyone wants to see him play as long as possible,” Moretton said. “We know he will be 40 soon. It will be difficult. We can see it, and he knows it himself, and he needs to preserve himself.”
Moretton is intent on building stronger links with the other Grand Slam tournaments and creating more unity that will give tennis leaders a stronger collective voice. The stern statement on Osaka was perhaps a product of that zeal.
The French federation, under the previous president, Bernard Giudicelli, ruffled feathers within the sport last year by moving the start of the French Open from May to September without approval from other tennis entities. The tournament also was moved back a week this year, but Moretton insisted that was done in consultation with other tennis leaders.
The one-week postponement this year was made to allow for more fans during the tournament’s second week, when French government restrictions were set to soften. The number of spectators allowed on the grounds will more than double from 5,300 to 13,000 on Wednesday and Thursday, and Moretton said there would be 5,000 spectators at Chatrier for both singles finals.
The last night session without fans was on Tuesday, when the fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas beat the second-seeded Daniil Medvedev, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 7-5, in a quarterfinal.
“Our match was match of the day, and Roland Garros preferred Amazon to people,” Medvedev said, referring to Amazon Prime Video, which has been broadcasting the night sessions in France.
Revenue is still way down at an event that normally draws 38,000 spectators per day. In 2019, the tournament generated 260 million euros, or about $316 million. In 2020, it generated about 130 million euros, and Moretton said the numbers would be similar this year.
“We are going to be hit hard,” he said.
Government relief and loans and the federation’s ample reserves have helped soften the blow and, most important to Moretton, preserve financial support for tennis clubs and leagues in France.
Moretton retired from the sports event management business and made two long treks to Nepal before being persuaded by friends to run for the federation’s presidency.
Though he is from Lyon, he also considers Roland Garros home. At age 12, he slept in a tent on the grounds when he played in a national junior tournament. He later lived on site for a year, sharing a small house with other aspiring French pros, including Yannick Noah.
Noah won the French Open in 1983, and stands as the last Frenchman to do so. Moretton will now try to help develop Noah’s successor and work to make the rest of his four-year term smoother than the start.