Roland Garros Is The Name…And It’s Never The Same

By Cheryl Jones and Mark Winters

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To begin at the beginning…the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT) has, for some time, used Roland Garros, as the name of the second major of the year, instead of the French Open.

The distinction is much more than the French living up to being French. In 1927, the legendary Musketeers (Les Quatre Mousquetaires – Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste) defeated the US in the Davis Cup Challenge Round and the FFT needed a stadium to stage the 1928 defense of the trophy.

René Lacoste and Jean Borotra in Place des Mousquetaires in 1989
René Lacoste and Jean Borotra in Place des Mousquetaires in 1989.
Photo: Mark Winters

The facility had to be built “tout de suite”. In response to the need, a three-hectare parcel of land (7.4 acres) at Porte d’Auteil was decided upon. It was on the west side of Paris – the 16th Arrondissement. But in order to use it, the location had to be named after a World War I soldier.

Of course, that is why the French decided to honor Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros. The renowned aviator, and by the way, a solid rugby player, was a national hero who perished when his plane was shot-down near Vouziers, Ardennes. His death occurred a day before his 30th birthday and a month before World War I ended.

Footprint at Roland Garros
Footprints lead the way to Stade Roland Garros. Photo: Mark Winters

Around the world, the tournament is known as Roland Garros. This holds unless the country is English speaking where it is called – The French Open. (We [Cheryl and I] have always used the distinction but have had story editors very often change Roland Garros to French Open.

When asked why, the response has been pretty much the same – Because that’s the way Associated Press does it…which is like being named Mark or Cheryl and having a “higher power” decide we should be called Bart or Carol just because they like it better…)

Nowadays, in many settings (such as the US), history falls victim to “rewriting…” The French Open, oops Roland Garros, for some reason has followed a reconstruction approach to the tournament’s history. According to the FFT in 1940 “there was no competition due to World War II”. From 1941 to 1945, the tournament had been “cancelled”…

But the Tournoi de France was played. Beside the French, competitors from Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland participated. Though the champions – Frenchmen Bernard Destremau (1941 and ’42) and Yvon Petra (1943 – ’45) along with Alice Weiwers of Luxembourg in 1941 and ’42, Simone Iribarne Lafargue of France in 1943, Raymonde Veber Jones of France in 1944 and Lolette Payot of Switzerland in 1945 – are not “officially” recognized, but their names are included on the Men’s and Women’s Singles champions’ list.

Lolette Payot
Lolette Payot, winner of the Tournoi de France in 1945. Photo: Smith Archive

Stade Roland Garros has been forever stained by having served from 1939 to 1940, as a “centre de rassemblement”. (That’s a polite name for an internment camp where political dissidents and foreign nationals were detained.) Those euphemistically “housed” at the facility lived and slept in “the caves” beneath the stairwells at what is now Court Philippe Chatrier. Rumors persist and over the years, players have said they can “feel the ghosts” while waiting in the corridor before walking onto Chatrier to play their matches.

In his biography, “Darkness at Noon”, Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian Jew and a communist, who was eventually able to flee to Great Britain, described the setting, saying that around 600 prisoners slept, like sardines, on wet straw because there were leaks in the structure. Most of the captives knew nothing about tennis but when they were able to walk in the stadium, they could see the names of Borotra and Brugnon atop two of the grandstands.

Those who took part in the tournaments from 1941 to 1945 were, in some cases quite daring, and from time to time, very courageous. When France was occupied, Destremau, who won the 1938 Roland Garros Men’s Doubles with Petra, made his way to Spain then to North Africa, where as a tank commander, he was wounded fighting for the Free French. Petra was captured in 1940, in Alsace, France during the German invasion.

He seriously injured his left knee as he attempted to avoid being captured. He ended up in a prisoner of war camp for two years. Ironically, because he had competed in Germany before the war, and his captors recognized him, which led to a doctor being sent from Berlin to treat his injured leg.

Sadly, 76 years after the war ended, very few can recall those dire times. For whatever reasons, the “Dark Days”, along with the bloodstains leached into the grounds of Stade Roland Garros, have been “unremembered” by those who are, supposedly, the guardians of the French game.

To paint a more vivid picture of the “forgetting”, attention must be turned to the seminal Bois de Boulogne – a woodland park. Napoleon III created the 2,155-acre park after he staged a coup d’état in 1852 in order to transition from President of the French Republic to the Emperor of France.

The landscape has rolling grassy expanses, trees and lakes, and it is in essence just across the street (now it’s a very wide one…) from Stade Roland Garros. It has been used in scenes in books written by Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert and more recently Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. Artists such as Eduard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh used the park as settings in their paintings.

Races at the Bois de Boulogne by Edouard Manet
Races at the Bois de Boulogne by modernist painter Edouard Manet, 1872.
Photo: Universal Images Group North America LLC

During the Germans stay in Paris, they took full advantage of all the Bois offered. Troops camped there. Tanks were garaged and camouflaged by the trees. Sadly, it was used as a killing ground, too.

There is a monument dedicated to 35 partisans – Resistance members, all just into their 20s –  who were lured to the park by a French collaborator. They were on a mission to collect weapons to continue the effort to reclaim Paris. The Gestapo was waiting for them and executed everyone on August 16, 1944. As it turned out, General Dietrich Hugo Hermann von Choltitz surrendered the German garrison on August 25, 1944.

(In his biography, “Is Paris Burning”, Choltitz claimed that he disobeyed Hitler’s order that the city be left as “a pile of rubble”. In actuality, because of the continued Resistance activities he no longer controlled the city. What’s more the Germans didn’t have the materials necessary to demolish buildings and bridges.)

About ten years ago, Cheryl wrote a feature where she pointed out that Terre Battue is a unique surface that isn’t actually clay. It’s crushed brick which is carefully screened so it provides a uniform surface that is packed atop a limestone foundation. The result allows for consistent drainage and easy re-distribution (topping) during competition. (There’s a good deal more that goes into the make- up of court but it is buried beneath the visible red clay.)

She went on to say that the clay used on courts in the US is not the same. It is gravel-like and often green. It is made from crushed metabasalt and is called Har-Tru. According to players, it doesn’t offer the comfortable glide-slide found in Paris and it really doesn’t offer an appropriate preparation for Roland Garros.

Stan Wawrinka sliding at Roland Garros, French Open
Stan Wawrinka in glide-slide during his winning final against Novak Djokovic in 2015. Photo: PA Images

While the stroke mechanics of those who have triumphed in Paris vary, often dramatically, their mindsets are similar. Winners are persistent and consistent. Formidable and resilient. Tireless and undaunted…and often there’s much more.

“Flair” is part of the city and country’s dynamic. But, hidden amongst the appeal, a steadiness resides. The success of some of the champions reflects impressive longevity. Only six Junior Boys’ winners have gone on to prevail in Men’s Singles play. Those who have doubled include (Junior and Adult):

Ken Rosewall of Australia, in 1952 and in 1953, 1968
Roy Emerson, another Australian, in 1954 and in 1963, 1967
Andrés Gimeno of Spain, in 1955 and in 1972
Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, in 1978 and in 1984, 1986. 1987
Mats Wilander of Sweden, in 1981 and in 1982, 1985, 1988
Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, in 2003 and in 2015

The Junior Girls’ and Women’s Singles titlists comparison is exactly the same. The six who earned both trophies are (Junior and Adult):

Francoise Durr of France, in 1960 and in 1967
Mima Jaušovec of Slovenia, in 1973 and in 1977
Hana Mandlíková of Czechoslovakia, in 1978 and in 1981
Jennifer Capriati of the US, in 1989 and in 2001
Justine Henin of Belgium, in 1997 and in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007
Simona Halep of Romania, in 2008 and in 2018

Ballkids warming up at French Open Roland Garros
“Ramasseurs de balles” which translates to “Gatherers of balls” warm-up before a match. Photo: Mark WInters

As it did last year when it reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic by moving from its annual spring date for the tournament to the fall then re-rescheduling again so that it took place September 27 – October 11, Roland Garros has regularly been aggressively, progressive. May 1968 is a historic example. The championships was the first major played in the Open Era. 

It was a memorable time but not just for the tennis. Demonstrations and strikes by students and workers throughout Paris, particularly in the Latin Quarter, (as well as the rest of the country), brought day-to-day life to a virtual standstill.

With so much attention focused on the civil unrest and general uneasiness, Ken Rosewall, the No. 2 seed, stealthily defeated fellow Australian and top seed Rod Laver 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2 in the Men’s final. Nancy Richey, the Texan who was seeded No. 5, slipped by Ann Jones of Great Britain, the No. 2 seed,  5-7, 6-4, 6-1 for Women’s honors.

“May ‘68” had a telling cultural, moral and social effect on the country. It instilled a degree of hope, (thus the slogan, “Adieu de Gaulle”), and in the April elections the following year, indicated France was finally ready to embrace a lessening Gaullism without the aging and ultra-conservative Charles de Gaulle as its stern leader.

Rarely does social unrest and the weather team up but as is regularly the case in Paris, they can and they have. Over the years, there seems to have been strikes of some sort (most often the Metro) during Roland Garros. They have added to the complexity of day to day life for everyone working at the event. 

On the weather front, rain is a regular participant. Prior to the roofing of Court Philippe Chatrier, countless matches were seemingly washed into the Seine. Games were regularly played as tournament officials toyed with fans. On rainy days every attempt was made to complete at least one match so that refunds for a “washout” would not have to be offered.

Rain delay at the 2010 French Open
Rain delay at Roland Garros. Photo: PCN Photography

The fortnight can be two wardrobe worthy. During the first week, the temperatures can fluctuate dramatically. Conditions are often frigid; in truth, “wind driven put your thermal jacket on blustery”. Often, the second week is “shorts and sun screen”, toasty, along with every possibility in between. But the fluctuations are all part of the appeal.

For a little over two weeks each year, Stade Roland Garros is a village. One that extends beyond the property lines for the players, the spectators (this year the number will again by restricted by the National Health Service) and those watching from home. Roland Garros is an “Allez!” exclamation. It is the Grand Slam with the most “Panache” that leaves everyone humming “I love Paris in the Springtime…”

Title photo of Suzanne Lenglen Stadium by Cheryl Jones

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