NOM DE TENNIS
French remembered WWI flying ace when they named their Open stadium
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Sunday, May 31, 1992
To Americans, it is the "French Open" or more familiarly "The French." But for Parisians of any generation, this increasingly hallowed tournament is known by one name and one name only: "Roland Garros."
"We've never called it anything else," said Simone Forterre, 77. "But I'm not certain that everybody remembers who Roland Garros was."
He was not, as trivia buffs on either side of the Atlantic may already know, a tennis star, although he did play recreationally. Roland Garros was an aviator.
Born in 1888 on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Garros attended a prestigious university in Paris, then embarked on a barnstorming tour of the United States in 1910. He was billed as the pilot who "shook hands with death," and his high-altitude derring-do earned him the monicker "Cloud Kisser" from the American press. He returned home, and in 1913 became the first to fly from France to Tunisia.
Five years later and only five weeks before an armistice ended World War I, Garros was killed in action near the Ardennes. He remained just another French war hero until 1927, when one of his former classmates insisted the tennis stadium soon to be built on the western outskirts of Paris be named in his honor.
Today, Stade Roland Garros is the site of the world's most famous claycourt tournament -- a Grand Slam event that remained aloof from the American public for years before drawing its attention in the 1980s.
The images most Americans guard of the French Open are not as rich as those from Wimbledon, nor as encyclopedic as those from Forest Hills and Flushing Meadow, but they have burgeoned rapidly in number and power: Yannick Noah flying exultantly into his father's arms; soulmates Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova trading victories; John McEnroe at the height of his powers losing his edge against Ivan Lendl; Michael Chang fighting off cramps and older, stronger men to shock the world; Andre Agassi and Jim Courier unleashing Bollettieri Academy forehands of remarkable force.
And then, of course, there is the clay: red and thus exotic. Staring at it on television, we imagine it as smooth and slightly damp, like the clay we molded in elementary school. The surprise in person is that the surface is loose and granular: nothing much more than Har-Tru gone red.
The French, for their part, don't call it clay; they call it "terre battue" (beaten earth), which seems logical enough considering the surface is made of crushed brick. Experts like Gilles Delamarre, the author of the definitive French-language history of the Open, claim no definitive proof exists to date the origins of terre battue in France. But stories circulate nonetheless.
The most credible concerns the Renshaw brothers, Englishmen and former Wimbledon champions, who constructed the first grass courts in the Mediterranean city of Cannes in 1878. When the dry climate caused the grass to turn brown, then die, the brothers allegedly decided to make the best of a bad situation and covered the courts with red dust to add color.
The extremely thin layer of red brick serves much the same purpose today. The 2-inch layer of white limestone underneath it is what actually determines the court's bounce and quality, but white would never do as a surface because it reflects the sun and would impair the players' vision. Crushed red brick is easier on the eyes and more conducive to long, graceful slides.
Though terre battue is the court of choice at Stade Roland Garros, it does not hold the same status in France. Of the nation's 34,000 courts in 1991, only 5,900 were clay. The rest were hardcourts or rubberized indoor surfaces: a testimony to the country's increasing year-round passion for the game. In 1975, there were 311,382 registered players in France. Today, there are more than 1,300,000 -- a number that is likely to keep increasing in the wake of the nation's emotional Davis Cup victory in December.
"The sport has experienced a remarkable boom," Delamarre said. "And that boom has translated into a more popular tournament."
As recently as 1984, it was possible to walk up and buy a ticket for the men's final on the day it was played. That is no longer remotely possible. This year's tournament was sold out before it began, and scalpers were asking 450 francs (around 80 dollars) for Court Central tickets during the first round.
"Twelve years ago or so, there was no one here early in the first week," remembered Richard Evans, a spokesman for the ATP Tour. "Now you've got to fight your way through a crowd to get to an outside court."
Elbow room is indeed a problem at present-day Roland Garros. Lines are long for crepes, sandwiches and T-shirts. Narrow passageways teem with upwardly mobile fans in wide-brimmed hats and designer sunglasses (French fans are thankfully less inclined than Americans to attend matches in their favorite tennis outfit). The few open patches of grass are covered with reclining bodies.
"It takes them just two weeks to undo 11 months of work," said gardener Robert Grignard, who since 1965 has lived in a small cottage on the Roland Garros grounds. "We planted 20,000 flowers before this tournament, and we'll have to do it all again next year. But I don't mind. That's the price of success."
For Philippe Chatrier, the influential president of the French Tennis Federation, expansion has long been the only solution. With only 15 acres, Stade Roland Garros is 30 acres smaller than Wimbledon and five acres smaller than the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, N.Y. Though the Court Central here seats 16,000, the stadium's second show court, Number One, has a capacity of only 4,500. Beaucoup francs
Profits, however, continue to grow. Total earnings climbed from 146 million francs in 1988 to an estimated 240 million ($44 million) in 1991. The tournament is now televised live in nearly 70 countries, among them Indonesia, Zaire and Peru. The downside to all this success is commercialization. Boutiques and corporate booths are ubiquitous.
"It's lost a little bit of its charm," admitted Australian journalist Alan Trengrove, who first covered the tournament in 1962. "But of the four Grand Slams, it's still my favorite."
The players aren't arguing. In a magazine poll published last year, a majority named the French Open the best organized and most enjoyable of the big four. And why not? Aside from the usual complimentary transport and lodging, the French Open was the first Grand Slam to provide a nursery for players' children and an on-site hair stylist.
Paris certainly does no harm to the tournament's popularity, either. Located on the southern outskirts of the huge public park, the Bois de Boulogne, Stade Roland Garros is within minutes of the heart of the city. The Eiffel Tower is visible from the upper reaches of the Court Central.
"The intimacy may be missing now, but the setting remains so pretty here next to the Bois de Boulogne," said San Diego tennis promoter Racquel Giscafre, a women's semifinalist here in 1975. "I still prefer red clay and a ham sandwich to grass and strawberries and cream."
Contrary to popular belief (even in France), Stade Roland Garros is not a private club. Nor is it open to the public. The complex serves as headquarters of the French Tennis Federation, and the only people who can play here without an invitation are members of the Davis Cup and national development squad. A handful of promising juniors actually live on the grounds -- just as Noah did years before he won the tournament.
"I remember Noah and Henri Leconte running around here as teen-agers," said Grignard, the gardener. "They'd come back and look at my flowers once in a while."
Besides Grignard and the juniors, the only other permanent residents at Stade Roland Garros are a small group of workmen of Algerian origin who are experts at claycourt (make that brickcourt) maintenance.
"They all come from the same village in Algeria," Delamarre said. "The first one arrived about 30 years ago, and his cousins and brothers are still here."
It bears remembering that Stade Roland Garros would not exist at all if four young Frenchmen hadn't taken the tennis world by storm in September 1927 in Philadelphia. It was there that Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste won their nation's first Davis Cup title against the United States. A rematch was scheduled in France the next summer, and because of the immense interest, a new stadium had to be built in less than a year.
The Four Musketeers are still present at Roland Garros: Their bronze statues rim a circular square outside the Court Central. The square is normally empty, but this year is different. Glittering magnificently inside a showcase is the Davis Cup, finally regained after 59 years of frustration.
"We might not all remember Roland Garros," said Grignard, "but I know we'll never forget the Musketeers."