What's in a Place

Saturday, May 22, 2010 /by

Rg What would the French Open look like if it were played somewhere other than Roland Garros? Let’s take a step back: Could there even be a Grand Slam in Paris at any other location? The tournament and the site where it has been played since 1928 are so intertwined that, at least in English, they go by the same name. Officially, there’s no such thing as the “French Open”; it's just called Roland Garros.

Nevertheless, talk continues between the French Tennis Federation, government officials, environmentalists, and the neighbors about whether the tournament has outgrown its restricted surroundings inside Paris, and if it might be time to consider the once-unthinkable step of moving out. There are two overarching scenarios on the table, one to expand the current Roland Garros site into the nearby Bois de Boulogne woods, put a retractable roof on the center court, and replace the second court, Suzanne Lenglen, with a new 15,000-seat arena. The second scenario would be to construct a new venue altogether in the Paris suburbs, most appealingly at Versailles.

If you’re a tennis fan, you need never have walked the grounds at Roland Garros or eaten a crepe in its food court to consider this a heresy of near bizarre proportions. Is it really so dire here that you need to chuck 80 years of tennis history out the window just to jam in a few more spectators and, presumably, bring the modern miracle of the luxury box to Paris? Doesn’t that sound a little . . . American?

It’s just that if you have walked the grounds of Roland Garros, you can at least begin to see the point of all this. Entering the gates today, for the first time since 2006, my initial reaction was surprise at the modest scale of the place. I’ve become attuned to the U.S. Open, where hordes mille all the way to the horizon and maybe beyond it. Wimbledon is more than twice the size of Roland Garros.

In theory, this makes the French an appealingly compact event. The practice courts on one end and the Bullring (Court 1) on the other are separated by a thin and not unreasonably long corridor. What can seem unreasonable is how many humans might be packed into that corridor, and more important, into the side courts that line it—if you don’t get in early, you might be shut out of a court all day. Even this afternoon, when nothing other than harmless practice sets between second-tier players were on display, the grounds were covered with a solid mass of humanity.

The tournament, if it does move, wouldn’t pull up stakes until 2015 at the earliest. Whatever replaced it would, by necessity, be an inferior stage to start. The identities of the Slams, like the Masters in golf, are tied to their locations, and their atmosphere is a product of their history in that place. It would take years to approach the vibe at Roland Garros. Maybe decades: I’m not sure that, after 32 years, Flushing Meadows has an authentic “atmosphere,” other than perhaps the sparkle of money that lights up night matches in Ashe Stadium. That said, as the clay season has already shown, it depends on the architect. The new stadium in Rome seems like a logical expansion that doesn’t violate the Foro Italico aesthetic, while the airless design of the Magic Box in Madrid, its center court excepted, suffers from a distinct atmosphere deficit. It’s obviously tougher to create a new event from scratch.

New sites and designs aside, what would the sport lose if it left Roland Garros? There must be something unique about it, that I don't feel back home, because after four years away I’d largely forgotten the effect the place has on me, the look and feel of its various courts and walkways, nooks and crannies.

From the press benches halfway up one side of the bleachers, the center court—Court Chatrier— is surreally bright. If Wimbledon has a theatrical quality, this court is gladiatorial. The clay looks bloody. Maybe it’s how close the stands are to the court, or how hair-trigger the French fans are compared to, say, the British, but everything that happens in Chatrier feels magnified. The strokes are elaborate, rather than brisk and clipped, the way they are at Wimbledon. And there’s very little emotional distance between the players’ actions and the intensely attentive and judgmental fans' reactions—the French are right on top of the pros. It makes sense, even from a personality standpoint, that Federer is all about Wimbledon, and Nadal has owned the French.

The French is the colorful major; Roland Garros, from the umpires’ shirts to the awnings on the souvenir shops, is an orchestra of green and orange. It’s the Continental major, sponsored by Perrier and Izod. It’s also the major with its own museum. Where the U.S. Open’s walkway of champions celebrates greatness, Roland Garros’ celebrates the artistic in tennis. Included are clips of the balletic Suzanne Lenglen and Jean Borotra, as well as Andy Warhol’s 70s-era “celebrity painting” of Chris Evert. This may all sound snobbish and effete—“Euro” for lack of a more specific term—to the average American sports fan, but when the real matches begin on Sunday, the French will also be the toughest physical test in tennis. You can see it, magnified like everything else, in the long slides, long swings, long runs, and long points that take place over the long wars of attrition inside Chatrier. Maybe it's the mix of theater and combat, but on no other court does a player look so alone as he or she gets ready for the next point.

Maybe a new venue would be just as evocative of the Continental version of tennis. Maybe red clay alone is enough. Maybe, particularly if it moves to Versailles, it can still be the French without having to be Roland Garros, too. But like I said, every major is its particular place. Chatrier with a roof is not the same, and Lenglen as it stands now may be the finest of all the second courts at the Slams, with steep and close bleachers that let in a lot of light, light that wouldn't be there with a huge roof apparatus glued to its top.

Nothing lasts forever, and both of these scenarios could produce excellent results, as proven by Wimbledon, which has renovated but never moved, and the Australian Open, which started over from scratch in 1988 and has hardly heard a word of complaint since. If Roland Garros does leave Roland Garros, what will happen to this particular place, its ambience, it memories of Borg and Chang and Federer's win, Evert and Graf and Hingis' implosion? Roland Garros could become a training site, or maybe it will be the most spectacular tennis club in the world. Or maybe, with no need to shine for TV, it will go the way of Forest Hills, the private club that the U.S. Open abandoned in 1977. The old horseshoe stadium there, creator of a million tennis memories over six decades, now squats unused, broken and half-collapsed, an urban ruin. Sitting in Chatrier today, it was hard to imagine this court, a court with so much life, with so much blood and sweat inside it, ever being so dead.

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