Ive been going to roland-garros, frances grand slam tennis tournament, religiously for nearly 15 years. my group of tennis-fan friends have perfected a ritual in paris in late may that heralds the beginning of summer: we pack elaborate picnics including bottles of ros and arrive before the crowds to stake out good seats, donning panama hats against the sun.

The covid-19 pandemic has put paid to all that. this year the tournament is being held in late september, amid comically bad weather more umbrellas and blankets than sunscreen and ice-cream.france is in the midst of a resurgence of coronavirus infections and officials have kept reducing the size of the crowd, from 20,000 a day, to 11,500, to 5,000, to, finally, a meagre 1,000.

I was one of the lucky few in attendance on friday, having been invited by one of the sponsors, the telecom operator orange. guests like me took about two-thirds of the 1,000 spots. the rest were allocated by lottery. the atmosphere was funereal and disorienting, and not only because of the weather.

The 129-year-old tournament is one of four grand slams on the annual tennis calendar, but its distinctiveness comes from its slow-playing, slippery red clay courts.the facilities have undergone a major 380m renovation in past years, which organisers argued was needed to keep pace with other slams with bigger grounds and more profits. there is a new retractable roof on the centre court, philippe chatrier, which allows play to continue in the rain. the project required much of the stadium to be demolished and rebuilt, giving it a very different feel.

New lights mean matches can stretch much later into the evening. they give off a cold, clear light, prompting some players to don visors, even when it is nearly dark. court number one, a brutalist concrete arena dubbed the bullring for its distinctive round shape, has been razed. in its place will eventually be a new viewing zone for fans, similar to wimbledons henman hill. this year, though, it is a void.the large souvenir shop contains no customers.

Pity the sponsors who pay millions to be the official drink (perrier) or car (peugeot) of the tournament, or to host guests at the event. unilevers magnum has set up a station where visitors can customise ice-cream bars with indulgent toppings and different shades of chocolate. three staffers shivered in raincoats as they waited for customers. nearby, a short line formed for hot tea.

Some have wondered whether the organisers would not have been better off cancelling, as wimbledon did, or playing to no audience, as at the us open. that option was completely off the table. simply unthinkable, said bernard giudicelli, head of the french tennis federation.

The tournament usually brings in roughly 255m in ticket sales, merchandise and broadcast rights. it acts as the economic engine of the entire french tennis system, with profits going to train amateur players, operate clubs and leagues. yet at times during the fortnight, it has seemed no one is happy. players have given grumpy interviews, complaining about the cold and the loose covid-19 protections at the two hotels where they must stay. organisers have lamented tens of millions of euros going up in smoke with the last-minute clampdown on crowd size.

And yet, when i take my seat on chatrier to watch french player caroline garcia face off against belgiums elise mertens, something magical happens. in the near-silence, small details become apparent: garcia muttering to herself during breaks, the thumping of the ball boys feet against the clay. its like watching tennis in a cathedral kitted out with a powerful surround sound system.a largely french crowd rallies behind garcia. afterwards, she thanks them: there arent many of you but you make as much noise as when its full.

Next up is the king of roland garros, spains rafael nadal, who has won 12 titles here since 2005. heis also the ultimate creature of habit, famous for his obsessive courtside rituals. how will he react to this years topsy-turvy tournament?apparently none of it gets to him. facing off against italian stefano travaglia, nadal is his usual clinical self, crushing his opponent three sets to love. at last something familiar at roland-garros.