Line judge Lucas Feron returns to French Open after brutal attack

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PARIS -- When Lucas Feron, 28, entered onto Court Philippe Chatrier at the French Open, during Aryna Sabalenka's match against Paula Badosa, the moment brought his life full circle. "He's here because he has earned it," Jean-Patrick Reydellet, the chief of officials at Roland Garros, said.

Feron has been here before, a key figure in the officiating team at Roland Garros as part of the women's 2018 final, and men's in 2021. He was there on the baseline, tracking every rotation of the ball. He was going to give it his all until the Paris Olympics, spending 35 weekends a year honing his craft. Then, in November 2022, he was victim to a brutal attack and has been in a wheelchair ever since.

But just under two years later, he's back on the show courts, doing what he loves more than anything. "I want to be an inspiration for everyone," Feron told ESPN.

Feron has always loved tennis. He used to play the sport, but then he gave umpiring a go when he was 14 years old. He progressed through the badges, earning the top umpiring qualification in 2021 -- the international white badge for officiating. He was a regular on the circuit, as a line judge at the Monte Carlo Masters, at the Paris Masters and at Roland Garros.

But then came that night on Nov. 20, 2022. He was attacked in Poitiers -- a city about 340 kilometers to the southwest of Paris. The violence put him in a coma for a month, and affected his neurological abilities. "It is too painful; I don't want to speak about it," Feron said. "I prefer not to and leave it behind."

He spent a year in a rehabilitation center in Nantes -- with relentless physiotherapy and speech coaching. After a year there, he moved back in with his family in Les Sables d'Olonne. And throughout the rehab, he held on to this dream of returning to what he loved doing.

"I always hoped to be involved with tennis again," he said.

All the while, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) kept in contact with him. They invited him to Yannick Noah Day, a day of charity matches at Roland Garros -- to see how he would fare. "He fought, but he couldn't work last year," Reydellet said. "But when he saw it, it was a huge improvement to reach for ... it was a good training."

This year, he was back on the circuit a little more, at a tournament in Poitiers and at a Bordeaux Challenger event, and his scores earned him another shot at being a line judge at Roland Garros. (Line judges are scored on "good technique, good voice, good image and good call," Reydellet said.)

"I did a good tournament, and I improved my eyes to see the ball," Feron said. "I had eye contact on the ball. The thing that is missing is the voice, because I need to call out loud and clear. I don't have this level of voice to call the balls."

While his voice carried in Bordeaux, the noise of Chatrier drowned him out. So at Roland Garros, he wears a microphone. Any call is then transmitted from the microphone on his sweater's lapel straight to the umpire.

He started on the outside courts at Roland Garros, but after good marks, he progressed to the third show court on Simone Mathieu. He said the journey there from the other side of the grounds is "good exercise." Then came his return to Chatrier on Saturday for Sabalenka's win. He was also there as part of the team for Novak Djokovic's early-morning match with Lorenzo Musetti.

Reydellet said Feron hasn't lost any of his instincts and ability to make the sharpest of calls. Feron interrupted him. "All officials can always keep improving." Feron was part of the team that presided over the mixed doubles final Thursday on Chatrier, but he still dreams of making the team for the women's or men's singles final. "I hope so, but it's not my decision," he said.

He has already caught a few fans this tournament. Djokovic saw a tweet about him earlier in the tournament and shared his support.

Thursday, when Feron spoke to ESPN, his face lit up as he saw the feedback from Djokovic. "Ah yes! It is very cool, very cool. I did not know this information." But then came the clarification: "I cannot tell you if he is a good player or not -- because I am an official."