Facing the French: When a football atmosphere comes to tennis

John Isner and Leylah Fernandez shed light on the challenge of taking on a home favourite in Paris

John Isner, Quentin Halys, Roland Garros 2022, fans, first round© Johan Sonnet/FFT
 - Stephanie Livaudais

For players who thrive under pressure, there’s no better atmosphere – or tougher task – than facing a French player at Roland-Garros.

There were nearly 30 home hopefuls who started in the main draw: 15 men, the most of any country this year alongside the United States, and 13 women, the biggest French representation since 2009 (16).

And across the first two days of action, they’ve all made themselves a force to be reckoned with in Paris.

Even if you’re watching a player for the first time, the loyal locals will make sure you’ve learned their name by the end of the match, as the French brand of support – singing, chanting, stomping and clapping – elevates even the most routine first-round encounters into early epics.

Nowhere is this more evident than in No.97-ranked Diane Parry’s upset over defending champion and world No. 2 Barbora Krejcikova.

The 19-year-old, who lives a stone’s throw from Stade Roland-Garros in Boulogne-Billancourt, came from a set down and rallied the Chatrier crowd en route to a 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory.

“When my mother would bring me to school, I could see every day the Roland-Garros stadium,” she said afterwards. “It was a dream for me to play there once.

“Today, it's a dream come true in front of a beautiful crowd.”

Diane Parry, Roland Garros 2022, first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

But even when the match doesn’t end in a feel-good French victory, the experience can still be just as electrifying for players on the other side of the court.

The Parisian crowd is the wildcard factor – that certain je ne sais quoi, if you will – that players say has been missing in the last couple of years as tennis, and the world, makes its slow return to a time before fan-less events and empty stadiums became the norm.

When John Isner, the No.23-seeded American, took down French wildcard Quentin Halys in front of a rocking Court Suzanne-Lenglen, he made a point to highlight the “very cool atmosphere” that fans created while supporting his opponent.

“I think they showed up very well today. Not just on my court; I could hear roars going around the grounds,” he said after his roller-coaster 7-6(3), 4-6, 7-6(1), 7-6(6) win. “Fans are very passionate here, and the players appreciate that.”

John Isner, Roland Garros 2022, first round© Julien Crosnier/FFT

Players also describe the experience as being the ultimate test of focus: it takes mental strength to avoid looking up at the stands and engaging with fans – or worse, egging them on – as well as blocking out the allez and allll-eeeeez chants, and the way the stadium itself almost seems to be shaking along with the crowd.

All of this while, at the same time, allowing the crowd’s energy to become their own energy.

For players like US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, it’s not as straightforward as just creating a mental bubble of calm amid the mayhem; the trick is to let the crowd lift you as well, even if only in contrarian defiance.  

“I always had the dream of having a crowd against [me],” Fernandez said after her 6-0, 7-5 victory over Kristina Mladenovic took a dramatic twist near the finish line.

Leylah Fernandez, Roland Garros 2022, first round© Julien Crosnier/FFT

The Canadian had sped through the first set, but soon found herself down a double break and later facing two set points as the Lenglen faithful willed the three-time Roland-Garros doubles champion back into the contest.

“Having that experience of the French crowd that was chanting, shouting, it was a great experience, like a football match,” she added with a grin.

“It was quite amusing. I just tried to think about my game and to have fun on the court, because it's not every day you have such an atmosphere. I'm very happy to have lived such a match.”

The strong French main-draw representation means we’ll likely see more such matches in the upcoming days, and on even bigger stages: 23-year-old Corentin Moutet, the No. 139-ranked wildcard who stunned 2015 winner Stan Wawrinka, will be 13-time champion Rafael Nadal’s next opponent.

Corentin Moutet, 1er tour, Roland-Garros 2022 ©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Meanwhile, Isner will go on to face another Frenchman in the second round, wildcard Gregoire Barrere, while No.8 seed Casper Ruud will be hoping to send 37-year-old Jo-Wilfried Tsonga into retirement on Chatrier on Tuesday.

No.3 seed Paula Badosa and No.7 seed Aryna Sabalenka will also be hoping to dodge early stumbling blocks in the form of Fiona Ferro and Chloe Paquet, respectively.

While the keys to victory always involve the right tactics, preparation and fitness, at Roland-Garros it’s often just as crucial for players to find a way to tap into the limitless energy coming from the stands – whether they are French themselves or not.