Court Simonne-Mathieu: Great change comes to historic Roland Garros

Court Simonne-Mathieu: Great change comes to historic Roland Garros

With the playing surface lowered 15 feet below ground level, the four new glass houses that surround it provide a unique setting—a deliberate aim of the French architect-engineer Marc Mimram, whose ambition was to merge sport with nature.

PARIS—Guy Forget, a tall, elegant Casablanca-born Frenchman, has met some challenges in his time: a globetrotting Davis Cup playing career; succeeding Yannick Noah as captain of the French team; becoming tournament director of the ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris and then, in 2016, assuming that role at Roland Garros.

By then Forget knew about pressure and how to handle it, but nothing had quite prepared him for being jointly responsible for building a stadium from scratch in eight months. That Forget and his French Tennis Federation team succeeded in spectacular style is now clear to all the players who have been hitting inside the brand new Court Philippe Chatrier, Roland Garros' center court.

But there were moments during the long winter months when Forget was on the verge of panic.

“We had to finish in time,” Forget told me, looking his usual calm, poised self in the Player’s Restaurant. “To fail was not an option. So there were moments of panic. A couple, actually, when we got behind schedule and had to hire even more workers.”

As the site was already occupied day and night by teams working continuous, eight-hour shifts this meant that the whole project was lifted to a new level of urgency.

“But we got it done,” says Forget. “Amazing really because there was nothing here in November. As you know the old stadium was completely demolished. Now…well, there are still a few things to finish, but basically we have everything we need to stage a great tournament.”

The next major addition will be the roof, the need for which necessitated the destruction of the old Chatrier, built in 1928, which was simply not strong enough to take the weight. I first set eyes on it in 1946, a mere two years after Stade Roland Garros has been relieved of the horror of serving as a transit camp for Jews being sent to Dachau and Belsen. By 1961 I was in the press box, a partitioned section of a drab, concrete and frequently half-empty stadium.   

The color and drama was provided by the players with Manolo Santana, the son of a club groundskeeper from Madrid, beating the suave Italian champion Nikki Pietrangeli in five wondrous sets of classic clay-court tennis. Overcome, Santana wept on the comforting shoulder of the man whose crown he had just taken. They were pictured together in Rome last week—still fast, life-long friends.

That great final provided a snapshot of all the exhilarating moments that have passed through history in the much-renovated stadium that was rightly named after Philippe Chatrier, the visionary French and International Tennis Federation president who always insisted that a great sport must have great infrastructure.

Now, with its classic lines and cushioned seating throughout, the new Chatrier stadium will do Philippe proud.

But that race against time was only the most dramatic of the two notable changes that have consumed Roland Garros over the past 12 months. After years of wrangling, 20 public meetings and eight court hearings, permission by the local council to build a brand new court in the Botanical Gardens that sit between Roland Garros and the Porte D’Auteuil was finally granted last year. The result is the beautiful Court Simonne Mathieu, which has been constructed among the glass green houses that have always offered visitors the chance to enjoy exotic plants from all five continents.  

With the playing surface lowered 15 feet below ground level, the four new glass houses that surround it provide a unique setting—a deliberate aim of the French architect-engineer Marc Mimram, whose ambition was to merge sport with nature. In building a stadium in a garden, Mimram has endeavored to present the spirit of Roland Garros which, he says, is its “delicatesse.”

For those who may not have heard of her, the reason for naming the court after Simonne Mathieu becomes clear on closer scrutiny. Her record on court was impressive enough: six Roland Garros finals before winning titles in 1938 and 1939, and a total, including doubles and mixed, of 13 Grand Slam titles. But there was more to Mathieu than her tennis.

When war broke out, she was in New York, ready to compete at Forest Hills in the U.S. Championships. On hearing the news, she scratched her name from the draw and sailed for home. Not long after, she was to be found in Bournemouth on the south coast of England, having joined the Auxiliary Territorial Force. When General de Gaulle arrived to rally the Free French Forces in England, he quickly asked the tennis champion to organize a women’s division–the first such force in the history of the French Army. Lieutenant Mathieu promptly gathered about a hundred French female exiles who provided logistical support for de Gaulle’s forces. Later, promoted to Captain, she joined the future President of France in Algiers. She spoke little of her war time activities although many were presumed to be clandestine. Strange to think that Alice Marble, who had beaten Mathieu in both doubles finals at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1938, was operating as a spy on the Continent for the American Secret Service at the same time.

Mathieu was in Paris days after the city was liberated and wasted no time in becoming involved with getting tennis back on its feet. Still wearing her Army uniform, Captain Mathieu umpired the first post-war match at Roland Garros between Henri Cochet and Yvon Petra in the summer of 1944.

Decades later, the name of Simonne Mathieu, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006, will, deservedly, become part of the game’s lexicon as the new Roland Garros steps into the future.