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The French Open, a Grand Slam Apart
May 25 2003
The New York Times

With all due deference to Wimbledon, the most unusual Grand Slam tournament is actually the French Open.

It is the only one of the four major championships that Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis will never win; the only one in which chair umpires speak a language other than English, ball marks can be inspected with an intensity usually reserved for archeological digs, and waves of schoolchildren invade the grounds on the first Wednesday.

It is the only one in which the stadium once served as an internment camp and has also been the site of championship boxing and open-air theater.
It is also the only Grand Slam tournament named for a man who had no connection to tennis (the aviator Roland Garros); the only one in which the most important court is named for an administrator (Philippe Chatrier) and the second most important court is named for a woman who never played so much as a point here (Suzanne Lenglen).

Non, the French Open, which begins its two-week run on Monday, is a tournament and experience apart. And because of its clay-court surface — three inches of limestone covered with a crepe-thin coating of crushed red brick — the tennis on display is also different, with serves losing some of their customary primacy and shotmaking regaining some of its relevance.
Small wonder then that in the past decade, six of the eight men's champions in Paris have not managed to win one of the other Grand Slam events; only Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov have prevailed outside Paris.
The honor rolls at the other Slams over the same span have much more in common. Only two men won the Australian Open and no other Slam: Petr Korda and Thomas Johansson. Two have won Wimbledon and no other, Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic; and two the United States Open only, Patrick Rafter and Marat Safin.

What is odd is that this dichotomy exists even though true clay-court specialists are rarer than they were in the 1980's and early 90's. Most of the Spaniards and the South Americans who grew up on slippery clay are now at ease on medium-speed hard courts too and have adopted a style that has little do with the looping, mind-numbing baseline rallies of yore.

Gustavo Kuerten, Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Guillermo Coria are all fine examples of the new breed of clay-court player. Yet for now, the French Open remains, with occasional exceptions, a kingdom unto itself.

That kingdom was created in just nine months in 1927 and 1928. The French needed a stadium to play host to the Davis Cup, which had been wrested from the United States in 1927 by the Four Musketeers — Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, Ren? Lacoste and the doubles specialist Jacques Brugnon.
Tennis and the Musketeers needed a grander stage, and a plot of land on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne became available in 1927. But first they had to fend off bids from competitors like the French boxing federation and the sports union of the Louvre museum.

Once the land was acquired and construction completed, the new facility was named for a former member of the sports club Stade Fran?ais, Roland Garros, who was killed in combat in 1918.

Garros was much more at ease playing rugby than he was with a racket, but in one sense, he was not an inappropriate choice. Like the men and women who would win his tournament in the years to come, he was something of an international celebrity. As Gilles Delamarre recounts in his book "Roland Garros," published in 1991, Garros toured the United States in 1910 to put on flying exhibitions, breaking the world altitude record along the way and earning the nickname "cloud kisser" in the American press. In 1913, he became the first person to fly across the Mediterranean, leaving from France and arriving in Tunisia.

The Great War began the following year and Garros put his aviator's skills to a different use. Captured in 1915, he spent three years in a German prison camp but he escaped by dressing in a German officer's uniform, berating a German sentry along the way who was slow with his salute.
Garros was killed in 1918, just five weeks before the armistice. Though some of his descendants have complained about the increasing commercialization of his name, even threatening a lawsuit at one point, "Roland Garros" now adorns everything from towels to special-edition cars.

The stadium has been through considerable, occasionally wrenching, change. After the Germans occupied Paris in 1939, it was used as a prison camp for Jews. The tournament would later experience dire financial trouble, and at one stage in the late 1960's, the American player Cliff Richey remarked midmatch that the place looked "like an abandoned stadium."

Under Chatrier's enlightened leadership, the French Open gradually turned into a success story. Roland Garros also began to grow, expanding from eight acres and five courts in the 1970's to just under 20 acres and 20 courts today. In 1972, attendance for the two-week tournament was 51,101. Last year, it was 351,652, which helps explain why the gross revenue was 98.3 million euros (almost $116 million) with a profit of about 40 million ($47 million).
For those who have been coming to Roland Garros regularly for the last 15 years, it feels as if the building and remodeling have never stopped. The facility has been modernized, and marketed, but some of the intimacy and charm of the place has been destroyed.

Now they want to build some more. The trouble is, there is no room to grow in the triangle of land wedged between the Avenue de la Porte d'Auteuil and the Boulevard d'Auteuil.

Solution? Appropriate some of the nearby park, the Bois de Boulogne. Build a sturdy pedestrian bridge over the avenue for access and, in the process, nearly double the site's surface area, making room for yet another show court, this one with a retractable roof that would help make the French Open weatherproof.

"This project is essential, because we have reached a saturation point in terms of crowds," said Christian Bimes, the current president of the French tennis federation. He is quick to point out that the United States Open is on an approximately 47-acre site and Wimbledon on about 42 acres.
"I also believe," Bimes said, "that all the Grand Slam tournaments in the next decade will be obligated to protect themselves against bad weather on the final weekend. If it starts to rain at the beginning of the tournament, you have no problem. You have time to recover, but if it happens on the day of the final, you have to wait until Monday, which is a problem for the spectators, for the television viewers and for the television networks."

For now, the Australian Open is the only one of the four major events with a retractable roof on site. Parisians protect their rights and their greenery, and for people who live near Roland Garros, the tournament is a bit like the rich neighbor who insists on expanding his mansion and improving his view without worrying about the sightlines of others.

Bimes insists that Roland Garros needs to keep growing. The overcrowding could certainly be solved by admitting fewer people, but he is pushing ahead to expand, and now has an extra selling point because of Paris's bid to be host to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

"It will make it easier for us because that will make this new stadium of national interest and national use," Bimes said. He would like the issue to be brought to the French parliament in September.

Whatever happens, there is no question that the old stadium is of national and international interest. The Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Center and the Louvre attract many more tourists, but Roland Garros officials hope to close that gap. Long closed to the public when the tournament was not in session, the stadium will open year-round beginning June 28, offering guided tours of the grounds, stadiums and players' locker rooms to the public, as well as access to the new Tenniseum, which features tennis memorabilia and historical archives.

The concept is not original. Wimbledon, the oldest tournament in the world, already has a tennis museum. But Roland Garros remains the more original place.
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