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Serena Williams says she has 'serious' health problems which make her want to stay away from other people during the pandemic

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French Open players under lockdown off-court

PARIS, France, Sep 29 This year’s Roland Garros is not just about what happens on the court, it is also very much about what goes on off it as organisers try to reduce any chance of the coronavirus rearing its ugly head.

That has meant strict sanitary conditions for the players who have been corralled into two hotels close to the courts which they cannot leave other than to play or to see a doctor.

In part this was to counter the controversies that emerged during the US Open when French player Benoit Paire, who was ruled out of the tournament following a positive test for Covid-19, spoke of a “false bubble”.

The French Tennis Federation (FFT) has given no leeway to French players, who might be tempted to stay with friends or family, and none also for three-time champion Serena Williams who owns an apartment in the French capital.

“I have serious health problems which make me try to stay away from public places,” Williams said during the US Open, obviously concerned about being in close proximity to anyone.

“I have found myself several times in the hospital in serious states. I will make the best decision for my health.”

So far so good for Williams who cruised through her first round match against Kristie Ahn as she started her bid for a record-equalling 24th Major.

But the players are not completely bubbled as the two hotels are not being used exclusively for Roland Garros. It is not uncommon for the players to mingle with hotel guests, ordinary tourists, in the lobby of the building or in one of the elevators.

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– ‘Bubbling is impossible’ –

“Our objective was not to create a bubble because the bubble is impossible,” Bernard Montalvan, responsible for the health protocol at Roland Garros, told AFP.

Masks are de rigueur in the sparsely populated stands at the French Open © AFP / MARTIN BUREAU

Opinions differ among the players about that ‘non-bubbling’ approach.

The American John Isner “feels very safe” while Britain’s Dan Evans said he felt “nervous” at the sight of the public in the hotel.

“If we are forbidden to leave (the establishment), then we should not see the public there, that’s my opinion “, he said at a press conference on Sunday.

Evans lost his first round singles match but must hang around for his opening doubles match.

There is an area which is reserved purely for the athletes but the “players’ lounge” up on the 9th floor is a small joy for those who have already spent several weeks confined to New York for the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati — which was relocated to Flushing Meadows — and the US Open.

But there was enough laughter and noisy discussion emerging from the lounge on Saturday, on the eve of the launch of the third and final Grand Slam tournament of the year, to suggest it was a popular place.

– Waltz of vehicles –

Players are only allowed to leave the hotel for three reasons: a match, training or something medical.

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For this, they have to book a tournament shuttle which leads to a continuous waltz of vehicles stamped with the Roland Garros logo in front of the hotel.

Many opt to have meals delivered rather than eat with the public. Delivery men and women follow one another through the hall, leaving the hotel restaurant to the few tourists braving the start of autumn in Paris.

Victoria Azarenka (right) and Danka Kovinic are all masked up as they take to the court in their first round match © AFP / Thomas SAMSON

To help seal the hotels, the lobby is littered with security guards ensuring that everyone wears a mask, social distancing measures are respected and that the players are not disturbed by over enthusiastic fans looking for an autograph of a selfie.

Most of the time, their work is limited to guiding disoriented customers to reception, the restaurant or the elevators.

All these restrictions are in place for a reason. The players are only too well aware of the threat of Covid-19 which on Tuesday officially passed the one million fatalities mark worldwide.

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