Goodbye, Monsieur Garros?

by: Peter Bodo | November 04, 2009

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by Pete Bodo

Mornin'. All eyes are shifting toward Paris as we approach the final high-value tournament of the year, the BNP Paribas Masters, known more colloquially as Paris Bercy.

As indifferent as I've sometimes been, at least in some contexts, to the fall (mostly) indoor season, I've got to tip my hat to this long-lived event. Back when tennis pros valued any opportunity to play for significant prize-money, especially at times of year when the outdoor tennis actions is slow, Bercy was a talent magnet, and over the years the promoters managed to grow it into a noteworthy event.

Bercy wasn't just a fun indoor tournament; it was the fall indoor event (much like the US Pro Indoors, in Philadelphia, was the winter indoor event in the US). As the ATP flourished and the pro game became more of a seller's market, Bercy suffered. The quality of the field declined, and those who did show up often found it difficult to muster the energy and urgency to play their A games in Paris in somber November. Tomas Berdych, David Nalbandian and Sebastian Grosjean have won the prestigious title in recent years; Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick have not.

But Paris Bercy has survived the epidemic of top-player fatigue and gotten over the ultimate hump for every tennis tournament promoter. It's evolved into an event that is less reliant on the participation and performance of the very top stars than on the support of fans and corporate sponsors. In other words, Bercy  - like the handful of other top drawer events - is bigger than any of the players who may or may not play it, or even than any combination of said  players.

However, judging by the news today, Bercy as we know it may not have much longer to go. The good news is that it may be transformed into something better. It seems that the tournament promoter, the FFT (French Federation of Tennis, the French ITF affiliate) is eyeing moving the event to Roland Garros.

That's right. I suggest you bring that goofy "stadium blanket" that zips up to wrap you in a cacoon for enduring November weather in a sports stadium.

Well, not exactly. Bercy would be moved to Roland Garros if the mayor's office in Paris approves the FFT's plans to build a new stadium at the traditional Roland Garros grounds (see photo above). Alternatively, the FFT also has drawn up specs for adding the hot new Grand Slam accessory to the present Court Centrale, a retractable roof (photo below). The main stumbling block to either plan is opposition from green groups and local residents in the fashionable Boulogne neighborhood where Roland Garros sits, surrounded by elegant suburban homes on chestnut-tree lined streets. You can read the details here.

I haven't seen the blueprints for the new, stand-alone stadium, but I have seen the preliminary drawings for the retractable roof. It will be interesting to see the politics in Paris play out, because the opponents of both proposed renovations are no dummies. While they may not have a problem with the idea of a roof that can be closed in the event of rain, they also know that a retractable roof (and the price tag it will carry) may foretell a shift to a split-session format during Roland Garros. And the neighbors probably don't want to deal with a more or less 24/7 tennis event lasting two weeks. Frankly, the traffic issues that seem inevitable under a two-session program are nothing to scoff at. 

Because the battle lines are so firmly drawn, I imagine that the FFT knows it won't get what it wants, and has done what any good negotiator would - position his hopes as a second or third option. That is, the FFT may want a retractable roof badly enough to insist that what it really wants is a new stadium, suitable for year-round play. That way, if the stadium idea is shot down, the FFT can appeal to the good nature of its opponents and hope to get approval for the retractable roof as a compromise measure - and the first important step down what the opposition must see as a slippery slope to an imperial expansion of Roland Garros.

But look at it this way: It wouldn't be hard for the city of Paris to insist, and legally forbid, split sessions under a sliding roof. Wimbledon, after all, has promised that it will never go to a split-session format despite having a roof with adequate lighting for it.

87221010 The FFT is also threatening to abandon Roland Garros entirely, should neither of its proposals win approval. In some ways, this would be a logical step despite the inevitable pain and outcry such a break with tradition would trigger. Roland Garros, despite its size and the significant, wonderfully-executed upgrades of recent years, is in the same position the West Side Tennis Club (formerly the home of the US Open) and Kooyong (the tennis club that hosted the Australian Open before the event moved to Melbourne Park) were in 15 or 20 years ago, and Wimbledon remains in today. All three of those Grand Slam events were played in an exclusive club in the suburban neighborhood of a metropolis. Ironically, Roland Garros is the only major that didn't strike its roots in a private club.

But that oddity is incidental; Roland Garros may just as well be a private tennis club. It has a similar footprint and relationship to the neighborhood where it exists. Maybe it isn't such a crazy idea to move the event (there goes the FFT's aggressive, somewhat irritating drive to "brand" its major as Roland Garros, rather than the French Open). By doing so, the French would merely be following the trail broken by the USTA when it moved to the National Tennis Center, and Tennis Australia when it re-located in Flinder's (now Melbourne) Park.

The Roland Garros site is historic. But it's become increasingly crowded, and while that's added to the allure of the event, it's also true that the US and Australian Opens have really flourished after moving to larger, public spaces. The move from Kooyong absolutely saved the Australian Open from becoming an irrelevant major. Only nostalgic contrarians believe that the US Open was more fun and offered better spectator value back when it was held at the West Side Tennis Club. Both events have prospered, spectacularly, in their newest homes.

Somehow, moving Roland Garros seems like heresy - wasn't it just yesterday that the FFT built the Bullring, and christened the new, spectacular Court Suzanne Lenglen?  It would seem both a shame and a waste to abandon those familiar landmarks. But our yesterdays run together, and time passes faster than we think. Tennis's track record of looking to the future, at least as far as the Grand Slam events are concerned, has been wise and productive.

Maybe moving Roland Garros isn't such a bad idea after all.

PS - I suggest you stay on-topic at this post for a few hours before you drift off into general chatter about today's tennis, or other topics.

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