Spring in Paris means the French Open tennis tournament, known to all simply as “Roland Garros.” The charming and tight-knit complex of show courts and crowd-friendly outside courts was built in 1928 the first time France defended the Davis Cup. It’s been updated and expanded over the years but is showing its age, and now its expansion plans are at the center of a loud public argument about taking part of a well-known botanical garden. As usually happens to controversies like this in France, it’s locked up in the courts.
The French tennis federation has high hopes for an expanded and refurbished Roland Garros for next year, and intends to build its first covered court — well behind its competitors in Australia, England and the United States, which were able to cut through their own red tape and now have weather-protected courts that threaten the French tournament’s status as a pre-eminent tournament.
The expansion plan was the alternate to a much-reviled suggestion that it be moved to the suburbs. Roland Garros lies in the ritzy 16th arrondissement, just to the west of the city’s beltway and cheek-by-jowl with the Bois de Boulogne and a lot of very upscale apartment buildings.
France has one of the world’s best-established farm systems for up-and-coming tennis players, and the money to support it comes from Roland Garros. Its players consistently play at top form on the red clay courts, which are popular in Europe but in use everywhere in France, to the exclusion of almost all other surfaces.
Roland Garros is a tournament-watcher’s delight. It’s smaller and more compact than the other big venues, which means facilities can be crowded on big days. But its array of outside courts, almost none with more than three rows of seats, adds to the charm. They offer great close-up viewing in the early days of the tournament or during the pre-tournament qualifier rounds, which are my favorite. The show courts are fun, and if you go you should try to get a seat there for at least one match, but tickets are hard to get. Qualifier-round tickets are general admission and inexpensive.
ROLAND WHO? Roland Garros the stadium was not named for a tennis player (although the stadiums within it were). Roland Garros was a famous World War I aviator who was captured and escaped only to die in a dogfight with a German pilot. Read about him here. His life as an aviator is here.
The tournament runs on data, most of it crunched by IBM and much of it available on the tournament web site. Here’s the data page, and here’s the home page in English (it’s also available in French and Chinese; just click on the little flag icons to switch if you prefer one of the others).
Amateur tennis for health isn’t as big a thing in France as it is in the United States, but the French are active on the municipal courts around Paris and elsewhere in the country, and they have a well-run professional training operation. The Babble Out, a general health site, has a good article on the health benefits of tennis, which you can find here.
Despite all its problems, it’s my favorite Grand Slam, and I recommend it highly if you can arrange your Paris trip to be there in late May and early June.