French officials delivered one of the great moments of sports in the pandemic on Friday night, as the clock crept toward an 11 p.m. curfew in Paris that seemed destined to clear the stands during an epic French Open men’s tennis semifinal between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Novak Djokovic of Serbia.
An earlier men’s semifinal on Court Philippe-Chatrier lasted more than three-and-a-half hours, meaning that Djokovic and Nadal did not take the court until after 7 p.m.
Then the two longtime rivals started a stunning display of tennis, a roller-coaster duel in which Nadal, the 13-time French champion, grabbed the first set, and Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked men’s player, battled to win the next two. The first three sets in the best-of-five match lasted three-and-a-half hours.
As the third set ended, the celebration turned to howls and catcalls as a stadium announcer began to make a statement that the crowd of 5,000 expected to be a warning that they needed to soon head for the exits. Fans chanted, “We’re not moving,” and called for the resignation of the tournament director, Guy Forget.
Instead, the announcer said that an exception had been made and the fans could stay to see the conclusion of what former American star Chris Evert would later call “the greatest match ever played.”
And suddenly a crowd of 5,000 sounded like one 10 times as large. There was chanting and singing in the aisles, hugs and high-fives after a mostly miserable year-and-a-half for sports and much of the rest of the world.
The exception appeared to have been granted by the French authorities, who two days earlier had extended the nationwide curfew from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. as part of a phased plan to lift Covid-19 restrictions imposed in March. Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, later thanked the Elysee Palace and Matignon, the offices of the French president and prime minister, “for allowing us to stay until the end of this incredible suspense, this legendary match.”
France is recording an average of about 4,700 coronavirus cases a day, 50 percent lower than two weeks ago, and has fully vaccinated a fifth of the population, according to a New York Times database.
The French Open, one of four major events on the men’s and women’s professional tours, is the first in France to allow spectators since the pandemic. Two nights earlier, tournament officials cleared the crowd for the final games of Djokovic’s quarterfinal match against Matteo Berrettini of Italy, which also ended after the curfew.
On Friday night, Djokovic prevailed in front of the fans, taking the fourth set for a victory in a match that lasted four hours and 11 minutes. On Sunday, he will face Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in a final that is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., meaning it should conclude well before the curfew comes into play.