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Home Sports At the French Open Grounds, a Guided Tour of Change

At the French Open Grounds, a Guided Tour of Change

PARIS — In my 30th year of covering the French Open, I am in need of a map.

The courts where I have watched so many matches on the crushed red brick of Roland Garros are almost all gone — demolished or remodeled beyond recognition, like the main Philippe Chatrier Court with its retractable roof. Passageways that led somewhere familiar now run into concrete walls or freshly painted gates or take you to new-age landscapes like the sculpture garden behind Chatrier with its rows of ocher deck chairs and its cruise ship vibe.

All four of the Grand Slam tournaments have been on a building spree, but Roland Garros at this stage is the major that seems the most transformed.

It is the one I know — or used to know — best. I covered it for the first time in 1991, the year Monica Seles defended her title and Jim Courier beat Andre Agassi in that distant time when all-American men’s finals were all the rage in Grand Slam tournaments. Most important for me, 1991 was the year I married Virginie, a Parisian, and moved to France from San Diego.

In the early years, we lived in a studio apartment a few blocks from Roland Garros’s back gate. That meant that for two precious weeks a year, a tennis writer could walk to work from home, and I sometimes shared the commute with French players, like Guillaume Raoux, who had the good fortune to play a Grand Slam tournament in their own neighborhood.

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

Even with the expansion into the nearby botanical gardens in 2019, Roland Garros’s footprint is still the smallest of the Grand Slam tournaments, but the expansion also has made it the most eye-catching of the majors.

You could already watch tennis in Paris with the shadows lengthening across the clay in the early evening, one of the most photogenic moments in sports. Now you can watch tennis in a greenhouse, too.

It is high time for a visit to the new Roland Garros, and in lieu of a map, I called in a tour guide: Gilles Jourdan, who was once a ball boy at the tournament but is now the silver-haired manager of the stadium’s modernization project.

There was no better seat in tennis journalism than in Court 1. In the front row along the baseline, you were so close to the action that you sometimes had to lean back to avoid a player’s swing on a wide return.

Best of all was the venue: a 3,800-seat theater in the round known as the Bullring. It wasn’t the prettiest court in tennis, but it got something the architect, Jean Lovera, a former French junior champion, had not anticipated: acoustics that accentuated the strike of the ball. Courier used to love the unique thwack.

“The sound moves and resonates in a bit of a different way,” Lovera told 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 only concur, having once watched the Russian star Marat Safin drop his shorts midmatch to celebrate a drop-shot winner. But the Bullring and the sound effects are gone — demolished after the 2019 tournament to provide more space. The idea was to replace Court 1 with an open lawn, a flat French version of Wimbledon’s Aorangi Terrace, better known as Henman Hill. But there is not much open lawn this year. The void left by Court 1 has been filled by paving stones, new walkways, a coffee bar and other diversions.

Roland Garros was built in a hurry in 1928 because of four men: Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and René Lacoste, who was not yet a brand in those distant days. They were known as the mousquetaires (Alexandre Dumas’s novels were even bigger then), and in 1927, they won the Davis Cup in the United States against a team that included Bill Tilden. The Davis Cup, a team event, was as prestigious in those days as Grand Slam titles are today, and a new stadium was constructed in less than a year to accommodate France’s Davis Cup defense.

The Italian sculptor Vito Tongiani made bronze statues of the musketeers in the 1980s and the early 1990s. They were put on display at Roland Garros and then stored during renovations. But they are back this year in the new Musketeers Garden, sharing space during the tournament with the deck chairs and a big-screen television.

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

It is largely out of view this year, used for catering supplies, but it deserves the spotlight. After all the demolition and renovation, it is the last building standing that was there in 1928, spared because of its links to the past even though sentimentality has not saved much else.

The cottage predates the stadium. It was the clubhouse for a private tennis club whose clay courts became part of the original Roland Garros. “Above all, during the musketeers’ years, they changed in there,” Jourdan said. “It was the locker room.”

It later became a gardeners’ shed and then a dormitory for young tennis prospects who were training at Roland Garros.

The most famous former occupant is Yannick Noah, who went on to win the French Open in 1983 and become a pop star. He remains one of the most popular figures in France.

Roland Garros preferred rugby and has his name on a tennis stadium only because his friends wanted to honor his memory; he was an aviator and a fighter pilot who died in combat in the final days of World War I. But the stadium also honors another figure who was not a tennis player: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who died in 1904 and whose experiments with “chronophotography” helped lay the foundations for modern cinema.

A research institute bearing his name, the Institut Marey, was opened on the current site of Roland Garros in 1903 and remained in place for 50 years after the stadium was built, allowing scientists, sometimes in white lab coats, to watch matches from the roof. But it was demolished to make way for Court 1’s construction in 1980, with the agreement that a monument to Marey would remain part of the stadium in perpetuity. The marble bas-relief monument, which contains some of Marey’s ashes, has moved around the grounds through the decades, but it is now in a prominent location in the new garden. “During the construction, Mr. Marey stayed in my office for two years,” Jourdan said 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, but the loss that really hurts is the old Court 2. It was my favorite spot: a close-quarters drama magnet where coaches, off-duty players and members of the news media shared the same box, entering through a door that felt like the portal to a secret garden. I once interviewed Boris Becker on a changeover.

Built in 1928, it was a two-tiered court, so cozy it seemed that the fans on the upper tier were hovering over the players as they traded blows. But the expansion of the Chatrier Court left no room for Court 2, and its departure has made way for a new main entrance that allows the public to descend into Roland Garros down a wide flight of stone stairs.

Jourdan remembers the old entrance, which was nearby. “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 said. “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 no more morning sprints, and as you walk down the stairs, you cannot help but stop to gawk at another new statue: Rafael Nadal in larger-than-life stainless steel, following through on an airborne forehand. Nadal has, of course, turned Roland Garros into his personal playground, winning a record 13 singles titles. It is a measure of Nadal’s achievement that the first thing you see when you enter one of France’s great showplaces is a Spaniard.

We will see how the remodeled grounds work in 2022, but Roland Garros has long been oppressively overcrowded, like a rush-hour commuter train disguised as a Grand Slam tournament. For years, I would sneak away at lunchtime to the adjacent Serres d’Auteuil gardens with my ham-and-cheese baguette (and fondant du chocolat). It was a peaceful moment, although not a silent one. You could still hear the roars from the courts and the chair umpires calling the scores, which was handy in the days before the Roland Garros app.

Now, after a long legal battle, one section of the gardens is officially part of Roland Garros. You can walk on a charming cobblestoned thoroughfare flanked by lovely 19th-century buhrstone buildings before arriving at the world’s only show court in a greenhouse: a semi-sunken 10,000-seat stadium that opened in 2019. It is a world apart after a short walk and a stroke of genius if you ask me, even if a few of the exotic plants appear to be wilting under glass and even if my secret picnic spot is definitely no more.

Roland Garros has long had great loot, often too great on a sportswriter’s salary. The prices have not gone down, but the shopping has. A new and sprawling megastore has opened underground this year, and “megastore” sounds a lot better in French: La Grande Boutique.

It is nearly a kilometer now from one end of the grounds to the other. It is a trek, but the players can make it faster than the masses, because they can travel below ground in the system of tunnels that connects the main Chatrier Court with the hinterlands.

Players make part of the journey in golf carts to save their energy. We did it on foot with Jourdan, passing from tunnels to underground parking lots to walkways to a staircase that brought us back into the sunlight at Courts 15 and 16. These are the only fully dedicated practice courts left in Roland Garros, and I used to play here, too, but not on these courts and not on red clay.

This area was once a public tennis facility with asphalt hardcourts before the French Tennis Federation took possession, as it has inexorably taken possession of all the nearby property on the same wedge of land as Roland Garros. You can understand the urge when you look at the size of the U.S.T.A.’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center or the plans for the next mammoth expansion of Wimbledon into the adjacent golf course. The competition among the Grand Slam tournaments is real, and one of the reasons the French Open stayed in Paris in 2012 instead of moving to bigger digs in Versailles was the promise of more land.

Jourdan, it has to be said, is a great tour guide — witty, convivial and informative. I am no longer in need of a map, but nostalgia is tough to shake. So before heading back to the Chatrier Court with all its glass and steel, I made a final stop at Suzanne Lenglen Court, the second-biggest show court at Roland Garros. The court has been a fine place to watch tennis for nearly 30 years.

I saw Roger Federer make his Grand Slam debut on that court in 1999 against Patrick Rafter — and lose in a backward ball cap. Lots of memories there, so I walked up the stairs, turned left and took a seat. No matches were on this late in the second week. The net was down, and a big-screen television was in place, but it still felt reassuringly familiar, and so it will remain until the new retractable roof goes up in 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics.

I should have seen that coming.



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