French Opening: Roland Garros’ ambitious plan to expand...everything

French Opening: Roland Garros’ ambitious plan to expand...everything

Catching up with its fellow Slams, Roland Garros has embarked on growing its grounds in Paris, and its brand around the world.

On the final day of the 2018 French Open, as Rafael Nadal was putting the finishing touches on his umpteenth title in Paris—officially, it was his 11th—members of the media at Roland Garros received an eye-catching email from the tournament: “Invitation to the Demolition Party,” the subject line read.

No one was sure exactly what that meant, but it sounded like a soirée you didn’t want to miss. An hour or so later, when we picked up our party favors—colored spray-paint cans and a white construction helmet with the words “Media Center 1988–2018” printed across the front—we understood what was about to happen.

Starting that night, Roland Garros was going to demolish the press rooms where we worked, along with most of the rest of the 90-year-old stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier, that housed them. In the hours before the decimation began, as photos that had hung for 20 years came down and desks were cleaned out for a final time, we were encouraged to spray whatever tributes and memories from the tournament came to mind on the soon-to-be-nonexistent walls around us. This graffiti would be our final words written at the old Roland Garros.

The tournament didn’t have a day, or even a night, to waste if it was going to meet its ultra-ambitious goal of creating a new Roland Garros by the time the 2019 French Open began 50 weeks later. Wrecking crews arrived soon after, and within a month, one of the sport’s most-storied arenas had been stripped to its foundations.

“What’s going to happen between 2018 and 2019? Now, very serious business is going to start,” said Gilles Jourdan, the man charged with running Roland Garros’ renovation project, when he announced the plan. “After the 2018 tournament, we are going to destroy 80 percent of the existing center court to rebuild the stands.”

“Everything is planned and organized, but we don’t have much time.”

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The original Chatrier, a Deco-era masterpiece from 1928 known for its ivy-covered concrete walls, was erected in less than a year, in order to host France’s first Davis Cup defense against Big Bill Tilden’s U.S. team. But Jourdan’s renovation project involves more than just one stadium, and will take more than just one year.

In 2019, aside from a brand-new Chatrier, Roland Garros will also expand its footprint from 850 acres to 1,250 acres, and will debut a new set of courts—including a sunken, 5,000-seat “greenhouse” arena, which will be known as Court Simonne-Mathieu, after the country’s best woman player of the 1930s. In 2020, a retractable roof will be placed on top of Chatrier, and the beloved Bullring court will be razed. In 2021, night sessions—complete with lighting fixtures that also retract—will come to the French Open for the first time; they’re expected to generate 100,000 to 150,000 more in ticket sales over the tournament’s two weeks. In 2024, the site will be the logical host for the tennis competition at that summer’s Paris Olympics.

“What’s at stake is to modernize, renovate this temple of clay,” said Bernard Guidicelli, the head of the French Tennis Federation, which runs the tournament. “We don’t want to be a giant site. This stadium will grow with its plot of land, its heritage plot of land, and will have an extension that will be as retractable as the roof before, during, and after the tournament.”

Roland Garros’ location inside the crowded confines of Paris—the grounds are squeezed into a narrow strip of land off the Bois de Boulogne—has always made a “giant site,” along the lines of the 1,900 acres that the US Open enjoys at Flushing Meadows, an impossible dream. For many years, the game’s clay-court major seemed to be on the verge of leaving the city, or possibly even the nation it was named for. Without more space, it couldn’t keep pace with its ever-expanding fellow Grand Slam events.

Over the last 10 years, the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open all constructed retractable roofs, while the French Open remained vulnerable to Paris’ temperamental spring weather. The need for a roof was reinforced during the 2016 edition of the tournament, which was dubbed the Drench Open after days of play, and hours of broadcast time, were lost to rain. As USA Today put it, “Players were frustrated, fans disappointed, and TV rights holders up in arms.” 

There had been talk of moving the tournament to a larger site near Versailles, or taking it to Madrid or one of the Gulf states. To remain in Paris, Roland Garros proposed extending its grounds into the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil—the Greenhouse Garden—that has been its next-door neighbor for most of the last century. The garden also happens to be a historical treasure: It contains famed greenhouses designed in the 1890s by one of France’s great architects, Jean-Camille Formigé, and produces 100,000 plants annually that are used for the beautification of city buildings. Neighborhood residents resisted the idea that this traditional oasis would be trampled over by tennis fans; but after being tied up in court for years, the proposal was finally approved in 2017.

“We are in a state governed by the rule of law,” Guidicelli said, “so in France everybody can be hostile to construction work. So we have to comply with the regulation.”

For Roland Garros, complying with city regulations meant designing a court that blended in with its surroundings. According to tournament officials, the complicated and lengthy process of getting its expansion proposal app-roved forced them to come up with a more innovative design for the arena. The exterior of Court Simonne-Mathieu will be made up of four glass-covered rooms where plants will be grown.

As Roland Garros prepares to expand its footprint, it has also embarked on an ambitious plan to expand its brand. In an initiative reminiscent of the France’s quest to keep its language alive, the FFT is working to keep its surface, la terre battue, at the forefront of the sport. To that end, the new-and-improved Roland Garros will emphasize its status as the mecca of clay, and try to make its name synonymous with the surface. In 2017, it began giving out awards to prominent clay-court facilities around the world, stamping them as official “Roland Garros” clubs, and sponsoring competitions at them.

“We want to be what we are, the world championship of clay,” Guidicelli said. “Our raison d’etre is to be the promoter, the engine, the driving force of clay competition. We have started a process in order to label the big clubs on clay in the world, and they will get the label of the Roland Garros clubs.”

This year the tournament also signed a sponsorship deal with Rolex, a company that has helped Wimbledon turn itself into a luxury brand over the last 40 years. Look for a similar effort on Roland Garros’ behalf in the future.

One focus of this international branding plan is China. The nation of 1.4 billion has long been tennis’ largest emerging market, yet it’s still one where clay courts are a rarity. In 2017, the French Open signed a deal with a Chinese broadcaster, and last year it stamped a club in the city of Nanchang, which has 11 clay courts, with its Roland Garros label. The goal is to brand 10 clubs in China the same way.

“Our community is the national community and the international community,” Guidicelli said. “That is, those who play tennis, those who play on clay.”

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Watch a timelapse video of Court Philippe Chatrier's destruction and transformation at the top of this story.

Ninety years ago, the original Roland Garros site was created for tennis’ most nationalistic purpose: hosting a Davis Cup tie. Starting in 2019, the new site will focus on fostering a global community, based on France’s most famous tennis export, red clay. By 2020, much of the visibly-aging concrete will be gone, replaced with shiny glass. The new roof will allow the tournament to join its fellow Slams in the 21st century and banish rain delays. As for the media, we’ll be trying to create new memories of this tournament between a new set of (presumably graffiti-free) walls.

Most important, the language of clay—its elegant slides, heavy topspin, punishing rallies, artful drop shots, mix of the physical and the graceful—will still be spoken where it has always been spoken most fluently: in Paris.