Swiatek vs Osaka classic proves women must now headline night slot at French Open

Iga Swiatek and Naomi Osaka embrace
Iga Swiatek (left) and Naomi Osaka played out a classic - Getty Images

“Osaka v Swiatek is a brilliant watch,” wrote Andy Murray on social media, midway through Tuesday afternoon’s match. “WTA need to do more to capitalise on these match-ups!”

Murray is probably right, but in this case the Women’s Tennis Association were not the primary offenders. They have no say over scheduling decisions at Roland Garros, which have consistently refused to give women equal billing.

There have been 21 night sessions since 2022, the year when the French Tennis Federation extended play beyond the hours of darkness for the first time. Yet only two women’s matches have appeared in this headline slot.

The debate often seems a symbolic or philosophical one, but on Tuesday it had real practical consequence.

Swiatek-Osaka was both magnificent sport and gripping theatre, with an unexpected twist in the tail. Yet it was played out in front of a half-full stadium because it was scheduled in the third and final slot of the day session. The fans had already watched four-and-a-half hours of tennis under the Court Philippe Chatrier roof. Many were worn out and had sloped off for a coffee and a croissant, or a look at the chic Roland Garros merchandise.

Had it been a night session, by contrast, every seat would have been full.

This is not simply talking with hindsight. Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, last year’s Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur had told reporters: “I wish I saw Osaka and Iga’s match today as a night session. I wish they [the FFT] would try more. I’m watching TV every day. A lot of men’s matches more than women.”

Here is the context for some of tennis’s strange idiosyncrasies. The ATP – who run the men’s game – are busy developing a commercial partnership with the WTA at the moment. They bring vastly more revenue to the table than their sisters, which adds to the complexity of the negotiations. And yet, how can the women catch up when they are constantly getting the short end of everyday scheduling decisions?

Osaka vs Swiatek was the first time in five years that two women with four slam titles or more had run into each other at a major. (Previously Serena Williams vs Maria Sharapova here in Paris in 2019.) It had name recognition and star power, yet was still demoted to second position in the day’s hierarchy by Richard Gasquet vs Jannik Sinner.

It might help if more women echoed Jabeur by making a fuss about their treatment. During the interviews that followed Swiatek’s recovery from match point down, both participants were asked whether they would like to have played at night.

“I don’t know,” replied Osaka, “I’m just here for the vibe.” Then Swiatek followed up with: “I’m fine with my match being at this time, because I didn’t finish at midnight, and I can go normally to sleep. Obviously I could talk about the fans and everything, but I’m more looking from my perspective, and this is a more comfortable option for me.”

There is one obvious explanation for the disparity between men and women in the night session. If you only programme a single match, the argument goes, it needs to be a best-of-five-setter. That way, a one-sided rout will last at least 90 minutes. Whereas a 6-1, 6-1 scoreline on the women’s side – which is hardly a rarity with Swiatek – can be done in just 50.

Still, there has to be a way around this conundrum, even if it means having a few commentators on standby to don their tennis kit and play a legends’ match. If Roland Garros’s scheduling arrangements can only accommodate men as the headline act, they need an urgent rethink.