PARIS—“They can’t really demolish the Bullring, can they?”
It’s a question that has been asked, with varying degrees of panic and incredulity, in tennis-fan circles at Roland Garros for nearly a decade. Every other year, it seems, officials at the French Open unveil a new renovation plan that calls for the demise of this much-loved circle of concrete.
Why knock down this 3,800-seat arena that’s at once simple and innovative, intimate and monumental, modern and classic, theatrically quiet and exhilaratingly loud? The French Open’s long-delayed expansion plans will finally come to fruition in 2019, and the Bullring—officially known as Court 1—doesn’t have a place in them. It will be replaced by a new, larger “Greenhouse” court, and the space where the Bullring stands now will become a spectator lawn, not unlike Wimbledon’s Henman Hill— “Noah Nook,” perhaps, as my fellow TENNIS.com writer Joel Drucker suggests.
We’ve heard tidings of doom like these in the past, and Court 1 is still standing, but this time the French seem dead-set on destruction and reinvention. I was stunned this year to discover that the tournament really had gone ahead and closed down the equally excellent and intimate Court 2. If that could go away without anyone marching in the streets of Paris, I guess the Bullring can, too.
Roland Garros tournament director Guy Forget on the tournament's upcoming renovations:
Still, walking around Court 1 this year, and watching matches from inside, it was hard to imagine this stadium’s absense from the grounds. It’s not old—it was erected in 1980—but it holds the history of Roland Garros in its cement. The top of its outer wall is lined with plaques memorializing the men’s and women’s singles winners from each tournament. There are still blank four squares left on the far side of the arena (after 10 with Rafael Nadal’s name on them); shouldn’t the building be allowed to stand until all of them are filled in?
The Bullring is also, as Chris Clarey noted in a New York Times article on the court in 2010, where Mary Joe Fernandez made her epic comeback to beat Gabriela Sabatini 10-8 in the third in 1993; where Gustavo Kuerten began his surprise run to his first title in 1997; and where, perhaps most memorably of all, Marat Safin dropped his shorts after winning an epic point against Felix Mantilla in 2004. I was present for the last of those three moments, and I’ve always believed that Safin acted appropriately—the point merited its, um, unorthodox celebration.
Before progress wipes away that history, and as the last balls are (likely) being struck inside, here’s a final tour of the Bullring—with photos from TENNIS.com’s Anita Aguilar—as it looked in 2018.
1. Where else but in France, where a significant proportion of the population learns to play tennis, would the architect of a major court also be a former high-level player? Jean Lovera designed Court 1, which was completed in 1980. At the time, it was the second-largest show court at Roland Garros, after what is now known as Court Philippe Chatrier. The Bullring was demoted to third place when Court Suzanne Lenglen opened in 1994.
2. Lovera wanted to set off the sharp rectangular form of Chatrier with a curve next door. In this photo, with Chatrier looming above, you can see the contrast he created.
3. Lovera also liked the racket that tennis racquets made when they used were inside a ring.
“The sound of tennis being played is different in a court like this,” Lovera told Clarey. “The sound moves and resonates in a bit of a different way, 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.”
Anyone who has heard tennis inside Lovera’s stadium—each shot sounds like it could have come out of a pistol—knows the truth of his words. Sitting here, especially in the ringside press seats, you feel as if you’ve entered the match, and you get a first-hand sense of how physical the modern clay-court game is. When the players slide far to their left, they look as they’re about to tumble into the seat next to you.
4. Architectural historians might describe Court 1’s style as late-Brutalist—it’s about concrete, and it’s about the structural purity of the circle. Compared to the glassy new buildings on the site, the Bullring has heft and weight, and it isn’t afraid to show its age; while the structure is less than 50 years old, it looks historic. Court 1 also shares a cement sensibility with Chatrier and Lenglen, and which the facility’s lighter and more transparent future arenas likely won’t.
5. The Bullring has its Brutal edge, but this being Paris, it also comes with a bed of roses.
6. Plaques with the names of every French Open men’s and women’s singles champion line the outer wall. Above, second from right, is the marker for 1984, with “I. Lendl” on it. Hopefully John McEnroe doesn’t look up when he walks past.
7. On the far side of the stadium, after 10 plaques with “R. Nadal” on them—along with S. Williams, M. Sharapova, and J. Ostapenko, among others—there are four blank squares left. Surely the court should live long enough to see these filled in?
8. For photographers, the Bullring offers an end-court pit with two levels.
9. It also comes with its own ball kids, who shag down the balls that come hurtling in on a regular basis.
10. From here, the players really can look and sound like larger-than-life warriors.
11. So large, in Maria Sharapova’s case, that from this angle she looks like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
12. The Bullring is a fine place to see, up close, the regimented pageantry that makes up the unique theater of Roland Garros. Here a ball boy prepares to toss a player a ball...
13. ...and here, two others race off to their appointed positions.
14. At the top of the stadium, there’s a standing-room-only row that provides a little concrete shade on a sunny day.
15. A late day crowd watches as the sun fades and a shadow crosses the court. There are flags from around the world at the top of the Bullring, but no articial lights. The court’s flat, open design has let in as much natural light as possible during its 38-year run. But it seems that even the best tennis courts must go dark eventually.
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