Paris Story: The Grandest Dirt

Sunday, May 22, 2011 /by

Roland-garros-philippe-chatrier-court PARIS—The first in a series over the next two weeks on favorite spots in this city. I'll start with one that's as familiar as it is eternal: Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros.

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It starts with the girls. They stand, smiling, sometimes two by two, sometimes with a male partner, at the bottom of the steps. They wear cream-colored dresses and uncomfortable-looking shoes, their hair up and casually disheveled, their backs a little bent and weary from not sitting for hours at a time. These are, for lack of a more complimentary term in English, the ushers. They’re the faces that greet you as you walk into the lower levels of Court Philippe Chatrier, the big, old arena at the center of Roland Garros. “You’ve come to the right place,” their faces seem to say. Though their mouths might be saying something entirely different, for all this uni-lingual American knows. They might be telling the poor, confused sap holding his ticket out in front of them, “Beat it, you can’t afford this walkway.” But I doubt it. The smiles really do seem welcoming.

Personally, I’ve never walked past the girls. I’ve never had a seat in the lower levels of Chatrier. But I’m not going to complain. The seats I do have constitute one of my favorite places in tennis. Yes, I love Roland Garros's beloved and doomed Bullring for its frenetic intimacy, and I like Lenglen for its humane concrete Brutalism. But they can’t match the grandeur of the 6-row press tribune in Chatrier. It sits halfway up one side of the stadium, and a few quick steps up from the stuffy press room here, steps that, for any tennis lover, beg to be taken two at a time.

In that French way, the tribune's style is in its simplicity. You sit in little green plastic seats, and you write on long, wooden boards. It’s a perfect fit for the typical reporter’s disdain for on-the-job comfort. We’re happiest when we’re hunched in a line together—in the press room, we hunch and type, in the press section at Chatrier, we hunch and scribble.

It normally drives me slightly mad to watch tennis from the side of a court. From the back, you can put yourself in the mind of the player on your side of the net. Looking from the side, you must follow the ball without seeing how the point is being constructed. But it doesn’t bother me in Chatrier. From the side and above, this feels like the world’s largest court. When you watch the pros launch their topspin bombs, push each other 10 feet behind the baseline, and then get their opponents scrambling all the way up to the net, it’s impossible to imagine that the little rectangle you play tennis on at home is exactly the same size as this Olympian version—78 x 27. More than on any other court I know, the players, when they stand inside this vast sea of orange dirt, appear to be alone—solo artists. Chatrier, with its steep sides, its fans who clap and cheer in rhythmic unison and try to insert themselves into the action, its physical brand of tennis, and its sheer flat expanse, brings out the gladiatorial aspect of tennis like no other place.

There’s plenty of color in the arena, aside from the ever-changing orange at its center. This year the linesmen are in red sweaters and ball kids in green shirts. At the bottom of the stadium, there are dark green Perrier signs and light green ones for Peugeot. At the top, there are flags snapping straight out in the wind. There’s red clay dust flying in the player’s faces. There are dark, somberly imposing seats at one end of the court; this is where the French Tennis Federation sits in judgement over its nation’s players. Today, there’s an occasional chant of “bum-bum-BUMP-bum-bum-bum,” borrowed from soccer (correct me if I have the spelling wrong), and lone children crying “Allez, Jo!” for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. There’s a Frenchman two rows in front of me in a lavender shirt, collar up; a slightly lighter lavender scarf; and tortoiseshell glasses. Best, at the start of each new set, there's the calming sight of cleanly swept clay—another obvious difference between this place and your local club. And, every so often, when things are getting a little dull, there’s the Wave, which the French do with an oddly proud gusto.

Old buildings, more than any book or painting or piece of music, are what gives us a collective memory. You can read about ancient Rome all you want, but it would take a million worlds to equal what you get from one live viewing of the Colosseum. You can read all you want about the French Musketeers, the stars of the 1920s who inspired the building of Chatrier, or Bjorn Borg or Chris Evert or anyone else who won this tournament, but it means so much more to know that they all did their winning right here, on the same 78 x 27—the biggest 78 x 27 anywhere.

On this cloudy day, the rectangle inside Chatrier took the sun and the shade and made both visible and understandable. That’s not unique to this place: Every field or pitch or outdoor court in the world does the same thing. When the French Open decided to stay put at Roland Garros earlier this year, I thought it was a mistake. And part of me, when I try to make the 100-yard walk from Chatrier to Lenglen and find myself slowed to a crawl by the gridlock of mass humanity on the grounds, still believes that it should move and expand. But in a new stadium somewhere else—even one in as legendary a spot as Versailles—would I still be able, when it gets too stuffy in the press room, to take a quick and eager turn up the stairs and walk out into the open air and see the world’s most important rectangle of dirt—its grandest dirt—laid out below me? Would I still take those steps two at a time?

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Follow me in Paris on Twitter, and read my friend Chris Clarey's own memories from two decades of covering tennis inside Court Chatrier here.

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