The name Philippe Chatrier will be repeated often in the coming days, as people refer to the stadium at Roland Garros with a brand-new roof—one that was supposed to shelter 16,000 people in case of rain, rather than the 1,000 who will be allowed to huddle against the chill of a Parisian autumn.
So who was he? A man of passion and complexity, I called him in a Guardian obituary in June 2000, when Chatrier died from Alzheimer’s disease. A visionary who embodied the rare combination of commercial pragmatism and idealistic values. A man who changed the face of French tennis and, as president of the International Tennis Federation between 1977 and 1991, influenced much of the tennis world.
Chatrier with Bjorn Borg, in 1979. (Getty Images)
There was so much more to Philippe than mere figures, but these give a quick snapshot of what his leadership meant. When he got himself elected as president of the FFT in 1973, there were 100,000 registered tennis players in France and 500 tennis clubs. By the time he retired 20 years later, the figures were 1.5 million players and 10,000 clubs. He would have liked the explosion to have happened quicker, but offering a glimpse of his sardonic humor, Chatrier often told us that it took him a while to “get my elephants in line.” His elephants were the League Presidents of those 10,000 clubs.
Chatrier’s passion for the game began early, when he won the French Junior title and started in journalism, becoming Sports editor of Paris-Presse. Wanting greater influence, he founded Tennis de France which quickly became one of Europe’s most influential voices. By then he had accumulated detailed knowledge of how the game worked—or didn’t, from his critical viewpoint.
With his fluent English, Chatrier was able to view the game globally at a time when tennis was in chaos. Struggling to implement the concept of Open Tennis, whereby professionals would be allowed to play in the great amateur tournaments, tennis needed Chatrier as much as he needed it. In the mid-1960s, he became acquainted with Jack Kramer, whose pro tour was a thorn in the side of the amateur establishment. Most amateur officials regarded Kramer as a pariah; Chatrier befriended him. So much so that in his book The Game, written with Frank Deford, Kramer calls Chatrier “my greatest friend in tennis.”
In so many ways, the two could hardly have been more different: the tall, brash, cigar chomping American, and the smaller, bespectacled, thoughtful and often introverted Frenchman—who, on occasion, actually wore a beret. But they shared a personality trait that defined them: they plotted a clear path to achieve their goals.
Chatrier with Rene Lacoste, in 1985. (Getty Images)
After leaving the US Coast Guard at the end of World War II, Kramer, clearly one of the best players in the world, needed to make money. There was none in amateur tennis, so creating a viable pro tour was the only way to make a living.
“But I needed the clout of being Wimbledon champion,” Kramer told me. “I thought I could it in 1946 but darn it, Drob (Jaroslav Drobny) beat me so I had to go back and win it the next year!”
That vital goal achieved, Kramer promptly turned pro and, originally in partnership with Bobby Riggs, formed the tour that would carry his name for the next two decades.
Chatrier’s road was a little more complicated. He knew exactly what he needed to do—revolutionize the way French tennis was run—but he was never going to win Wimbledon, and was still too young to get himself elected President. So he went to his friend Marcel Bernard, who had won the first post-war Roland Garros title, and asked him to get himself elected President and hold the seat warm for three years.
“Then, after I have the chance to talk to all the League Presidents and explain my plans,” Chatrier said, “I will have enough votes to take over from you.”
That’s exactly what he did. But his first move was to go to Georges Pompidou, then President of France, and ask for $14,000 to renovate the old stadium that now bears his name, and almost double the size of the Roland Garros complex by acquiring the rugby fields on which Court Suzanne Lenglen now stands.
Court Philippe Chatrier, with a roof, in 2020. (Getty Images)
If Chatrier had a clear vision, that could not be said of the game as a whole in the early 1970s. The amateur game was nervous and at loggerheads with itself as the ATP was formed, with Kramer at its head at Forest Hills in 1972. Open Tennis had arrived four years earlier, but various factions were still vying for power and the future was unclear.
I remember a dinner I attended in Paris around that time with Chatrier and his first wife, the British No. 1 Susan Partridge, Kramer and Donald Dell. Susan invited us up to Chatrier’s apartment on the Avenue des Ternes for a nightcap, but Philippe stayed brooding in his car and did not come up to join us for almost an hour. Conversation at dinner had been heavy, with tennis politics and difficult choices, and Philippe was inclined to plunge into melancholy moods of introspection—a strange contrast to the strong, outgoing leadership he displayed when the clouds had cleared.
That leadership led Chatrier to the chairmanship of the Men’s International Tennis Council when it was formed after the Wimbledon boycott of 1973. But of even greater impact was his determination to get tennis re-instated as an Olympic sport after its removal from the Games in 1924. Assisted by David Gray, the Guardian writer who had become his deputy as Secretary General of the ITF, Chatrier canvassed for its return, eventually persuading Dr Juan Samaranch, the Olympic supremo of the time, to award tennis full Olympic status as a medal sport at Seoul in 1988. It led to Chatrier becoming a member of the IOC.
Every year during Roland Garros, Philippe used to take the British tennis writers out for an evening at a different restaurant. From Montmartre to Les Invalides, the dinner offered a gastronomic exploration of the best Paris had to offer, led by the man who was always searching for the new and the different.