Tournoi de France winners channeled champion courage into WWII combat

Tournoi de France winners channeled champion courage into WWII combat

As with everything else about France during the war, the story of its national tennis tournament staged at Roland Garros, and the players who competed in it, is complicated.

World War II has been a hot topic among tennis historians in 2020. This year not only marks the 75th anniversary of the conflict’s end, it’s also the first time since the conclusion of the war in 1945 that any of the sport’s Grand Slam events have been postponed or canceled.

In casting our eyes backward, we’ve been reminded that not all Slams suffered the same fates during the war. At Wimbledon, Centre Court was bombed, and the tournament was abandoned from 1940 to 1945. The Australian Championships were also canceled while the country’s soldiers fought in Europe and the Pacific. The U.S. was involved in both of those theaters as well, but its national championships continued through the war. The Roosevelt administration saw sports as a morale booster. “We will gladly eliminate tennis if it interferes with winning the war,” USTA president Holcombe Ward said in 1942. “But our government doesn’t want us to abandon tennis.”

What happened at Roland Garros? As with everything else about France during the war, the story of its national tennis tournament, and the players who competed in it, is complicated.

The war came to French soil on May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded and began a monthlong march to Paris. With the city under siege, Roland Garros was canceled that spring. But the site had already played a role in the struggle. From fall 1939 to May 1940, the French government set up an internment camp on the grounds, for anti-Nazi political prisoners and foreign nationals. In his memoir, Arthur Koestler, a Jewish communist from Hungary and author of Darkness at Noon, described his time there.

“At Roland Garros, we called ourselves the cave dwellers, about 600 of us who lived beneath the stairways of the stadium,” Koestler wrote. “We slept on straw—wet straw because the place leaked. We were so crammed in, we felt like sardines.”

Rather than bring a halt to all sporting events during wartime, France’s new German-aligned Vichy government tried to promote physical fitness among its citizens by keeping its national competitions alive, just as Roosevelt did in the States. In 1941, tennis returned to Roland Garros, in a more limited, nationalistic form. Instead of a Grand Slam, the site hosted a tournament for French players only. (Foreign nationals from Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg also participated.)

Now known as the Tournoi de France, the event was held from 1941 to 1945. Because it happened during the occupation, though, the results aren't recognized as part of the history of Roland Garros, and the winners aren’t included in the honor roll of major champions. (This stands in contrast to the French Championships that were held from 1891 to 1924; those were also limited to players from France, but the winners are considered Grand Slam champs.)


French tennis players Marcel Bernard (second from left) and Yvon Petra (right) arrive for a match of the French International Championships of Tennis, in July 1946 at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris. (AFP vis Getty Images)

Of course, in those days, tennis players in France had a lot more to think about than their major-title counts. Everyone’s life had been upended, and everyone had life-or-death decisions to make.

Bernard Destremau, winner of the Tournoi de France in 1941 and 1942, escaped from France to North Africa during the war, commanded a tank for the Free French forces, was shot in the back, and received the Legion of Honor. Destremau lived to become a diplomat, politician, and an ambassador for France.

Yvon Petra, winner of the Tournoi in 1943, 1944, and 1945, was wounded and taken prisoner. In 1946, he would become the last Frenchman to win Wimbledon. (For more on Petra, please read our 2016 story on his father, as told to us by the French Hall of Famer.)

Raymonde Veber Jones, winner of the women’s Tournoi de France in 1944, saw her brother captured and held by the Germans for seven years. During the war, she fled Paris with her mother and sister after their apartment complex was bombed. Later the family hid a Jewish player in their house for six months. (For more on Veber Jones, see Robert Weintraub’s 2015 profile of her here.)

If the war-time drama of French tennis had a leading man, it was Jean Borotra. As part of the country's fitness push, the legendary Bounding Basque was named First Commissioner of Sports by the Vichy government. After seeing the new regime up close, Borotra quit his position and vowed to join the fight against the Nazis. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and imprisoned in Germany. At the end of the war in 1945, he vaulted a wall to escape and, after a dash across an open field, helped alert U.S. forces of a prisoner camp that was subsequently liberated.

While Borotra switched sides mid-war, there wasn’t any question about his fellow player Simonne Mathieu’s allegiances. After winning at Roland Garros in 1938 and 1939, she headed up the women’s volunteer branch of the Free French forces, and marched with Charles De Gaulle through Paris when the city was liberated in August 1944. A month later, Mathieu helped mark the end of the war era in French tennis by presiding, in her army uniform, over the “Liberation Match,” an exhibition at Roland Garros between Petra and Henri Cochet. The tournament honored Mathieu first by naming the women’s doubles trophy after her, though her first name is misspelled, with one “n.” In 2019, officials tried again—and spelled her name correctly—when they named their new Greenhouse Court for her.

Roland Garros has given Mathieu and her war efforts their due, but the tournament doesn’t acknowledge the event that was played on its grounds in those years. Officially, the French Open was canceled after 1939, and its history doesn’t start again until 1946, when the Germans had been expelled and the tennis world was invited back to Paris.


Simmone Mathieu, in 1926. (Wikimedia Commons)

Fans happily filled the stands at Roland Garros that summer. Food was scarce, oil shortages continued, and U.S. G.I.s remained a presence in Paris. But after six years, peace time had come, and life could begin again.

“Having been deprived of tennis during the war years, we had a real hunger to play,” Destremeau said. “We burned with an intense passion for the game, which I personally never knew at any other moment in my life, before or since.”

The women’s events were dominated by players from the U.S., where the sport had never stopped. Margaret Osborne beat Pauline Betz in the singles final, and teamed with Louise Brough to win the doubles. Betz and Budge Patty, who had fought with the U.S. Army in Italy two years earlier, won the mixed.

But the French men rose to the occasion. They were led by an old hero of the pre-war days, Marcel Bernard. Now 32, Bernard initially believed he was too rusty to play singles. But he entered at the last minute and ended up winning his first and only major singles title, much to the delight of the crowd. Bernard defeated Petra in five sets in the semifinals, Jaroslav Drobny in five sets in the final, and came back the next day to team with Petra to win the doubles, 10-8 in a fifth set. (Go here to read more about the event, and see a video of the men’s singles and doubles finals.)

“It was a [perfect] scenario and one that people liked,” Bernard remembered. “There had been the war, and the French Open was forced to stop. And along comes a Frenchman who battles back from two sets down. When I won in the end, there was such an ovation.”

Bernard had not only survived the war, and three five-set matches in three days, he had also beaten the heat. That year, Roland Garros switched places with Wimbledon on the calendar, and finished in July. Because of the sweltering conditions, many of the men left their traditional long trousers behind and opted for shorts for the first time. Soon after, this long-delayed fashion innovation was the norm at all of the Grand Slams. The post-war era, in France and in tennis, had begun.