Clay pigeons at the French Open: ‘Can we play when there is a pigeon on the court?’

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The players at the French Open are having to manage the unexpected at Roland Garros. The weather flips in an instant — from blinding sunshine to rain. Air horns from the crowd sound at random moments. And Stan Wawrinka was taken aback by the temperature of his water.

Then there are the pigeons.

Pigeons have had their moment in the spotlight at the French Open over the years. France’s Ugo Humbert was the latest to come into a spot of bother with the flying foes on Tuesday. Humbert crashed out of the tournament in five sets in the first round to Emil Ruusuvuori, and he was distracted by a pigeon on court during the fifth set.

It was deuce in the third game of the fifth, and just as Humbert went to hit a forehand, a pigeon landed on his side of the court. He ended up losing the point and protested to the umpire about the distraction, but the point stood. “I’d like to know what the rule is,” Humbert said. “Can we play when there is a pigeon on the court? I’d like to know more about this.

“I think we are not allowed to play with a pigeon on the court. We’ll have to check the rules, the bylaws.”

The International Tennis Federation’s Duties Procedures for Officials has a section named outside hindrance, which would seemingly apply to airborne distractions where it says: “If a player is hindered by anything not within his/her control (a ball rolling onto the court, a paper blowing onto the court, etc.) during play or during his/her service motion, the point should be replayed. Crowd noise, “out” calls from spectators and other similar distractions are not considered a hindrance and the point should stand as played.”

Humbert said he looked to umpire Kasia Radwan-Cho for guidance, but she remained unmoved. “I was serving, the pigeon was there, I looked at the umpire so that she would stop,” he said. “I didn’t dare and ask her to stop the match. I thought maybe she would say, no, the pigeon was not bothering you, but the pigeon was bothering me, close to me. I didn’t understand why she didn’t ask us to stop playing.”

The organizers of Roland Garros are fully aware of the disruptive threat that pigeons bring. Over the past decade, every morning before the gates open, bird handlers bring in peregrine falcons and hawks to fly above the grounds. Talking back in 2012, falconer Ludwig Verschatse explained their role. “We want to clear the pigeons off, not kill them,” he said. “When we arrived, there were about 30 settled pigeons who have since left. But we have to stay for the duration of the tournament, because pigeons are stupid. They don’t transmit the information to their friends.” One of his falcons is called Chuck Norris; another from 2014 was named 007.

Some pigeons still slip through the ring of steel. One perched on the net before a serve in Rafa Nadal’s opening match against Australian Jordan Thompson but was soon shooed away before it caused any further disruption.

Those flying feathered friends have disrupted matters in the past. Back in 2015, Richard Gasquet’s win over Carlos Berlocq was disrupted after a pigeon was stuck in the Hawk-Eye camera and soon met its fate. “I don’t think I have ever seen like this,” Gasquet said at the time. “I remember the feathers all over the place, and the public, they thought it was crazy, too. I had no idea what was happening. I had to ask the umpire. Tell you what. You know, sometimes I jog, and I know that sometimes birds will attack you. I thought that’s what was happening. Seriously. Have you never seen crows fighting? I have seen it before. I was really wondering. I mean, this was unbelievable, this pigeon getting stuck in the camera. This is unbelievable. It’s a tough death.”

The same year, Sloane Stephens was surprised by a pigeon on court while she was waiting for her opponent, Venus Williams, to serve. “It was a very dramatic moment, I would say. I thought the bird — first of all, I didn’t know what it was,” Stephens said afterward. “I thought it was way closer to me than it actually was. So that was why I screamed so loud. I’m afraid of anything that comes swooping down from I don’t know where.”

And then in 2019, Marie Bouzkova’s rhythm was completely disrupted during a rally with Bianca Andreescu in the first round of the French Open. She was preparing for a forehand as two birds flew at her. She would go on to win the set, but lose the match.

While the greatest threat to a player’s hopes of glory at Roland Garros is still the opponent facing them, Humbert’s experience will cause a few to take a tentative look to the sky to see whether a pesky pigeon is preparing to gate-crash the match for a closer look. As the saying goes, one day you’re the pigeon, the next day you’re the statue.

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