Entering the Big Time: 80 Years of Roland Garros

by: TENNIS.com | July 25, 2009

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The year was 1928 and tennis was embroiled in a Franco-American rivalry. Philadelphia’s Bill Tilden had dominated the men’s game since the beginning of the decade, but France’s “Four Musketeers” – Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, and doubles specialist Jacques Brugnon – were challenging Tilden’s reign.

A year earlier, the French quartet had begun making major inroads in the American stronghold on the game. Cochet beat then-two-time champ Tilden in the Wimbledon semifinals (and went on to win the title), Lacoste defeated Tilden in the final of the U.S. championships, and the French defeated the legendary American duo of Tilden and Bill Johnston to win the Davis Cup for the first time.

The Davis Cup was then the most important event in tennis, and with its victory France earned the right to host the next year’s final. So eager was the public to see their Musketeers take on the great Tilden at home that a new stadium had to be built for the tie – Stade Roland Garros, named for the French aviation pioneer who was shot down and killed in World War I.

The Stade’s inauguration did not go entirely smoothly. The lead-up to the 1928 final was marked by scandal when a bureaucratic dispute between Tilden and the U.S. tennis association left his participation in doubt until 24 hours before the tie. But in the end, both teams were at full strength for the great clash, witnessed by 12,000 spectators. The Musketeers did not disappoint the home crowd, reprising their 1927 victory over the U.S. and maintaining a grip on the competition that would last for six years, until Britain’s Fred Perry wrested the Cup away in 1933.

Though Lacoste was forced to retire the following year with health problems, the French felled the Americans again in 1929 and 1930. And despite their repeated successes, the French players never lost respect for Tilden's abilities, claiming it took all of them, not just a single one of them, to contain him. These Davis Cup finals also secured the legacy of the new stadium, which would eventually gain lasting fame as the home of the French Open.

The construction of Stade Roland Garros was part of a broader era of expansion in tennis. In 1914, the U.S. championships had moved from its exclusive enclave in Newport, R.I., to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. And it was the popularity of French star Suzanne Lenglen, who drew huge crowds wherever she played, that prompted Wimbledon to move from Worple Road to its larger, current location on Church Road in 1922.

The expansion trend indicated that tennis had hit the big time. The great players that had emerged from France, the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia had already set their countries’ national championships apart from other tournaments. Now, the construction of stadiums to showcase these new sporting stars and accommodate their fans cemented the high-profile status of those events. Ten years after Roland Garros opened, the four championships would officially be christened the “Grand Slam” events, and their trophies remain to this day the most coveted in the sport.

Frank Deford's book "Big Bill Tilden" and Richard Evans' book "The Davis Cup: Celebrating 100 Years of International Tennis"  were used as sources for this article.
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