With the first of the summer’s grand slams starting on Sunday, sports correspondent Kate Battersby takes a loving look at the history and culture of one of her favourite tennis venues
There are times when a sports writer struggles to break hearts with news of their next assignment. Tell anyone you’re about to go to Paris for a fortnight to cover the French Open, for example, and the response tends to involve gratifyingly large quantities of envy.
At such times the sports writer can choose one of two responses: a) blurt out a recap of the very many dud events you have covered in assorted armpit locations around the globe, or b) maximise their envy by agreeing that Roland Garros is just the most divinely civilised event in the sporting calendar. In case you haven’t guessed, my tactic is to opt for the latter.
Before we go any further, I make the loyal declaration that Wimbledon is deeply wonderful. I mean it: next month I will cover my 20th Championships there and, on a marvellous summer’s day, the All England Club’s mission statement of “tennis in an English country garden” not only rises above the preposterous, but holds completely true. Even the rainy days matter less now since the advent of the Centre Court roof in 2010.
But really, two weeks in Paris during the early summer, starting on Sunday 25 May… how hard can it be?
Roland Garros is sited on the west of the French capital, just outside the terrifying Périphérique, by Porte d’Auteuil in the 16th arrondissement.
An amusing factoid to British ears is that it lies on the Avenue Gordon Bennett, named after the eponymous publisher and playboy whose impact on multiple sports was such that several still have trophies named after him.
Better still, he is listed in the Guinness Book Of Records under “greatest engagement faux pas”. (His betrothal in 1877 to one Caroline May was broken off after he arrived drunk at the May family mansion and urinated in the living room fireplace in front of his hosts.)
Stade Roland Garros – the complex which has hosted the French Open since 1928 – is best described as intimate. Its triangular 21-acre site is barely three-quarters the size of the other three tennis Grand Slam venues.
This has been the subject of much hand-wringing at the French Tennis Federation for a decade or so, with endless talk of showcourt roofs and site expansion. None of which appears to have prompted any concrete action to date.
But the place as it is now has such style, such élan, that any alleged improvement might undermine its fundamental charm.
There are 20 courts, all in the signature red clay. The two main showcourts are called Philippe Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen, the latter after a legend of French tennis, the former somewhat opaquely after a long-time tennis administrator. They are 130 yards apart, linked by wide walkways echoing the Parisian boulevards, lending the complex the feel of a mini city.
The eastern approach to Lenglen reveals one of the main indicators that Roland Garros provides a cultural experience as well as a sporting one: a huge bronze bas-relief by Italian sculptor Vito Tongiani, depicting ‘La Divine’ Lenglen lunging for a forehand.
Similarly, on the south-west corner of Chatrier lies La Place des Mousquetaires, a circular courtyard commemorating the ‘Four Musketeers’ who allowed France to monopolise the Davis Cup (the global team championship of tennis) between 1927 and 1933.
This shady spot makes an excellent place to sit and watch the world go by. Each Mousquetaire – Jacques ‘Toto’ Brugnon, Jean ‘the Bouncing Basque’ Borotra, Henri ‘the Magician’ Cochet and Rene ‘the Crocodile’ Lacoste – has his own bronze statue, while each player has one of the four spectator grandstands on Chatrier named after him. (They’re big on commemorative names at Roland Garros, the most leftfield being Garros himself, who was a World War One flying ace.)
Nearby is the Tenniseum, a wonderful architect-designed museum of (guess what?) tennis, the best part of which is the Galerie Roland Garros. It’s largely subterranean, its cool airiness a counterpoint to the baking red clay above.
It houses modern sculpture and artworks relating to tennis, some quite surreal. The cultural commitment at Roland Garros is genuine, so much so that each year a leading light in contemporary art is selected to design the official event poster, which sells in scores of thousands.
All this, and two weeks of extraordinary tennis to boot. Roland Garros, mon amour.