At the French Open Grounds, a Guided Tour of Change


PARIS — In my 30th yr of protecting the French Open, I’m in want of a map.

The courts the place I’ve watched so many matches on the crushed purple brick of Roland Garros are nearly all gone — demolished or transformed past recognition, like the principal Philippe Chatrier Court with its retractable roof. Passageways that led someplace acquainted now run into concrete partitions or freshly painted gates or take you to new-age landscapes like the sculpture backyard behind Chatrier with its rows of ocher deck chairs and its cruise ship vibe.

All 4 of the Grand Slam tournaments have been on a constructing spree, however Roland Garros at this stage is the main that appears the most reworked.

It is the one I do know — or used to know — finest. I coated it for the first time in 1991, the yr Monica Seles defended her title and Jim Courier beat Andre Agassi in that distant time when all-American males’s finals had been all the rage in Grand Slam tournaments. Most necessary for me, 1991 was the yr I married Virginie, a Parisian, and moved to France from San Diego.

In the early years, we lived in a studio condominium a few blocks from Roland Garros’s again gate. That meant that for 2 treasured weeks a yr, a tennis author may stroll to do business from home, and I typically shared the commute with French gamers, like Guillaume Raoux, who had the success to play a Grand Slam match in their very own neighborhood.

Roland Garros is technically in Paris, on the southwestern limits of the 16th Arrondissement. But in feeling, it’s nearer to village life. The huge Bois de Boulogne park is on one border. Low-rise, suburban Boulogne-Billancourt is on the different.

Even with the growth into the close by botanical gardens in 2019, Roland Garros’s footprint continues to be the smallest of the Grand Slam tournaments, however the growth additionally has made it the most eye-catching of the majors.

You may already watch tennis in Paris with the shadows lengthening throughout the clay in the early night, one of the most photogenic moments in sports activities. Now you may watch tennis in a greenhouse, too.

It is excessive time for a go to to the new Roland Garros, and in lieu of a map, I referred to as in a tour information: Gilles Jourdan, who was as soon as a ball boy at the match however is now the silver-haired supervisor of the stadium’s modernization challenge.

There was no higher seat in tennis journalism than in Court 1. In the entrance row alongside the baseline, you had been so near the motion that you simply typically needed to lean again to keep away from a participant’s swing on a extensive return.

Best of all was the venue: a 3,800-seat theater in the spherical often known as the Bullring. It wasn’t the prettiest court docket in tennis, nevertheless it bought one thing the architect, Jean Lovera, a former French junior champion, had not anticipated: acoustics that accentuated the strike of the ball. Courier used to like the distinctive thwack.

“The sound moves and resonates in a bit of a different way,” Lovera advised me in 2010. “And as it turns out, I think it lends itself to generating emotions and making temperatures rise and getting reactions from both the players and the crowd that are stronger than usual.”

I can solely concur, having as soon as watched the Russian star Marat Safin drop his shorts midmatch to rejoice a drop-shot winner. But the Bullring and the sound results are gone — demolished after the 2019 match to offer more room. The concept was to exchange Court 1 with an open garden, a flat French model of Wimbledon’s Aorangi Terrace, higher often known as Henman Hill. But there may be not a lot open garden this yr. The void left by Court 1 has been stuffed by paving stones, new walkways, a espresso bar and different diversions.

Roland Garros was inbuilt a hurry in 1928 as a result of of 4 males: Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and René Lacoste, who was not but a model in these distant days. They had been often known as the mousquetaires (Alexandre Dumas’s novels had been even greater then), and in 1927, they received the Davis Cup in the United States towards a staff that included Bill Tilden. The Davis Cup, a staff occasion, was as prestigious in these days as Grand Slam titles are at this time, and a new stadium was constructed in lower than a yr to accommodate France’s Davis Cup protection.

The Italian sculptor Vito Tongiani made bronze statues of the musketeers in the 1980s and the early 1990s. They had been placed on show at Roland Garros after which saved throughout renovations. But they’re again this yr in the new Musketeers Garden, sharing house throughout the match with the deck chairs and a big-screen tv.

“It’s in bad shape,” Jourdan mentioned, standing subsequent to a massive, half-timbered cottage with some cracked home windows that sits on the northeastern boundary of the grounds.

It is basically out of view this yr, used for catering provides, nevertheless it deserves the highlight. After all the demolition and renovation, it’s the final constructing standing that was there in 1928, spared as a result of of its hyperlinks to the previous regardless that sentimentality has not saved a lot else.

The cottage predates the stadium. It was the clubhouse for a non-public tennis membership whose clay courts grew to become half of the authentic Roland Garros. “Above all, during the musketeers’ years, they changed in there,” Jourdan mentioned. “It was the locker room.”

It later grew to become a gardeners’ shed after which a dormitory for younger tennis prospects who had been coaching at Roland Garros.

The most well-known former occupant is Yannick Noah, who went on to win the French Open in 1983 and grow to be a pop star. He stays one of the hottest figures in France.

Roland Garros most well-liked rugby and has his identify on a tennis stadium solely as a result of his buddies wished to honor his reminiscence; he was an aviator and a fighter pilot who died in fight in the last days of World War I. But the stadium additionally honors one other determine who was not a tennis participant: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who died in 1904 and whose experiments with “chronophotography” helped lay the foundations for contemporary cinema.

A analysis institute bearing his identify, the Institut Marey, was opened on the present website of Roland Garros in 1903 and remained in place for 50 years after the stadium was constructed, permitting scientists, typically in white lab coats, to observe matches from the roof. But it was demolished to make approach for Court 1’s building in 1980, with the settlement that a monument to Marey would stay half of the stadium in perpetuity. The marble bas-relief monument, which incorporates some of Marey’s ashes, has moved round the grounds by the many years, however it’s now in a outstanding location in the new backyard. “During the construction, Mr. Marey stayed in my office for two years,” Jourdan mentioned with a chuckle, referring to Marey’s ashes. “I’m not sure the family would have approved, but he’s back where he belongs now.”

The Bullring’s demise is a pity, however the loss that basically hurts is the outdated Court 2. It was my favourite spot: a close-quarters drama magnet the place coaches, off-duty gamers and members of the information media shared the identical field, coming into by a door that felt like the portal to a secret backyard. I as soon as interviewed Boris Becker on a changeover.

Built in 1928, it was a two-tiered court docket, so cozy it appeared that the followers on the higher tier had been hovering over the gamers as they traded blows. But the growth of the Chatrier Court left no room for Court 2, and its departure has made approach for a new principal entrance that permits the public to descend into Roland Garros down a extensive flight of stone stairs.

Jourdan remembers the outdated entrance, which was close by. “In those days, the center court had no reserved seating, so as soon as the gates opened it was a sprint for the best spots,” he mentioned. “One year, it rained, so the stones were wet, and people went down in a heap when they ran around the corner. We weren’t laughing then, but we laughed later.”

There are not any extra morning sprints, and as you stroll down the stairs, you can not assist however cease to gawk at one other new statue: Rafael Nadal in larger-than-life stainless-steel, following by on an airborne forehand. Nadal has, of course, turned Roland Garros into his private playground, profitable a document 13 singles titles. It is a measure of Nadal’s achievement that the very first thing you see once you enter one of France’s nice showplaces is a Spaniard.

We will see how the transformed grounds work in 2022, however Roland Garros has lengthy been oppressively overcrowded, like a rush-hour commuter practice disguised as a Grand Slam match. For years, I’d sneak away at lunchtime to the adjoining Serres d’Auteuil gardens with my ham-and-cheese baguette (and fondant du chocolat). It was a peaceable second, though not a silent one. You may nonetheless hear the roars from the courts and the chair umpires calling the scores, which was useful in the days earlier than the Roland Garros app.

Now, after a lengthy authorized battle, one part of the gardens is formally half of Roland Garros. You can stroll on a charming cobblestoned thoroughfare flanked by pretty 19th-century buhrstone buildings earlier than arriving at the world’s solely present court docket in a greenhouse: a semi-sunken 10,000-seat stadium that opened in 2019. It is a world aside after a brief stroll and a stroke of genius for those who ask me, even when a few of the unique crops look like wilting below glass and even when my secret picnic spot is certainly no extra.

Roland Garros has lengthy had nice loot, typically too nice on a sportswriter’s wage. The costs haven’t gone down, however the procuring has. A brand new and sprawling megastore has opened underground this yr, and “megastore” sounds a lot higher in French: La Grande Boutique.

It is sort of a kilometer now from one finish of the grounds to the different. It is a trek, however the gamers could make it sooner than the lots, as a result of they will journey under floor in the system of tunnels that connects the principal Chatrier Court with the hinterlands.

Players make half of the journey in golf carts to save lots of their power. We did it on foot with Jourdan, passing from tunnels to underground parking tons to walkways to a staircase that introduced us again into the daylight at Courts 15 and 16. These are the solely totally devoted follow courts left in Roland Garros, and I used to play right here, too, however not on these courts and never on purple clay.

This space was as soon as a public tennis facility with asphalt hardcourts earlier than the French Tennis Federation took possession, because it has inexorably taken possession of all the close by property on the identical wedge of land as Roland Garros. You can perceive the urge once you have a look at the measurement of the U.S.T.A.’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center or the plans for the subsequent mammoth growth of Wimbledon into the adjoining golf course. The competitors amongst the Grand Slam tournaments is actual, and one of the causes the French Open stayed in Paris in 2012 as a substitute of transferring to greater digs in Versailles was the promise of extra land.

Jourdan, it needs to be mentioned, is a nice tour information — witty, convivial and informative. I’m not in want of a map, however nostalgia is hard to shake. So earlier than heading again to the Chatrier Court with all its glass and metal, I made a last cease at Suzanne Lenglen Court, the second-biggest present court docket at Roland Garros. The court docket has been a superb place to observe tennis for practically 30 years.

I noticed Roger Federer make his Grand Slam debut on that court docket in 1999 towards Patrick Rafter — and lose in a backward ball cap. Lots of recollections there, so I walked up the stairs, turned left and took a seat. No matches had been on this late in the second week. The web was down, and a big-screen tv was in place, nevertheless it nonetheless felt reassuringly acquainted, and so it’ll stay till the new retractable roof goes up in 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics.

I ought to have seen that coming.



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