Credit – Christopher Clarey
Though the 2017 French Open does not begin until Sunday, the tournament has already won a marathon match.
The proof is visible only after you leave the traditional confines of Roland Garros and pass through the gates of the adjacent botanical gardens, les Serres d’Auteuil, where a towering red, white and blue building crane sits in the midst of a vast, freshly dug pit.
After years of litigation and delays, the new and expanded French Open is at last on its way, and this construction site, which will occupy the corner of these elegant municipal gardens, will eventually become one of the most avant-garde tennis stadiums in the sport’s history. Planned for an opening in 2019, it will be a partly sunken court surrounded by new greenhouses that will give this faltering, overcrowded Grand Slam tournament the breathing room it needs.
“It’s our project of the century,” said Bernard Giudicelli, the newly elected president of the French Tennis Federation, which runs the event.
The project, long contested by environmentalists and some neighbors of Roland Garros, comes with some collateral damage. Sentimentalists, ill-served in general by tennis’s latest building spree, are going to lose some more touchstones. The new 5,000-seat “Greenhouse court” will replace the circular Court No. 1, nicknamed the Bull Ring, one of the most atmospheric and acoustically ideal places to watch a match.
“You shouldn’t be nostalgic for No. 1, because the Greenhouse court will offer a whole other spectacle,” Giudicelli said. “I don’t have any doubt it will quickly become a monument.”
Still, it takes time to build tennis memories. The Bull Ring will be demolished to make way for a large lawn that will be Roland Garros’s version of Aorangi Terrace, better known as Henman Hill, at Wimbledon. It will be a grassy place for a big crowd to watch tennis on a big screen and maybe — just maybe — luxuriate in the sunshine. That would not have been an option during last year’s rain-delayed edition of the tournament, aptly called the Drench Open.
Roland Garros in July of 1928, the year it opened. The match for the Davis Cup was between the French team, Henri Cochet and Jean Borotra, and the American team, Bill Tilden and Frank Hunter.
With such weather in mind, the federation’s project will also add a retractable roof to the stadium’s centerpiece, the Philippe Chatrier Court, by 2020. The modifications associated with that work will also require the demolition of Court No. 2, with its overhanging tribunes, architectural quirks, intimacy and vintage feel. Its replacement, the new and larger Court No. 14, will be built on the far western end of the grounds.
The “new Roland Garros” will be very new indeed, with hardly anything left from the original, which was built in a hurry in 1928 to provide a suitably grand venue to defend the Davis Cup that France’s four musketeers — Henri Cochet, René Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon — had finally managed to win.
But then at least the tournament is still here in Paris. In 2011, the federation flirted with the idea of moving it out of the city altogether to Versailles or another suburb, before voting to stay put.
There has been cause to question that, with the construction delays and well-founded fear that Roland Garros was losing ground in both prestige and means to the other three Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open.
The French Open’s total prize money this year of 36 million euros ($40.4 million) ranks third behind the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Even with the expansion from 8.6 hectares to 11.16 hectares, Roland Garros will still rank last in surface area and the number of roofed stadiums.
“I think we need to play the card of our own identity,” Giudicelli said. “France is not a continent like the United States. We don’t have the facility that will allow us the vast spaces available to the Australian Open.”
The goal is to emphasize “boutique” and “chic,” although anyone who has had to line up in the drizzle for an overpriced baguette over the years has felt anything but chic.
Bernard Giudicelli, the newly elected president of the French Tennis Federation. “It’s our project of the century,” he says of the planned revisions to Roland Garros.
Giudicelli, one of those who spearheaded the expansion project, considers the tournament’s recent difficulties a necessary evil.
“It was the price we had to pay for Roland Garros to remain in the city, to enable people to come out of Line 9 or Line 10 of the Métro and get to the stadium in five minutes,” he said. “That is an undeniable strength, as is our proximity to the Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower. But we live in a country of law. Our detractors used all the arguments they could so that our project would not happen. We have to respect people’s right to contest our plans.”
Giudicelli has no shortage of plans. He is an energetic Corsican who clearly relishes the limelight and comes from a long line of commercial fishermen; he approaches tennis with the zeal of a convert.
Giudicelli said he only began to play tennis at age 21 after falling for the sport when he watched Bjorn Borg beat Victor Pecci in the 1979 men’s French Open final. Giudicelli eventually competed in low-level tournaments, became an instructor and helped create a tennis league in Corsica of which he became president.
“There is a bad joke at home that says that Corsicans are lazy, but the day one of them got up and going, he became emperor,” he said, referring to Napoleon.
Giudicelli has shown some strongman tendencies of his own: cracking down on French players who decline to play Davis Cup or Fed Cup and making the counter-current call this month not to award Maria Sharapova a wild card into the French Open main draw or qualifying.
Instead of simply issuing a statement, he made the announcement himself via Facebook Live, one of his preferred communication vehicles since his election in February (he has even done a Facebook Live appearance while driving a vehicle through the California desert).
A rendering of the new Philippe Chatrier court, the centerpiece of the new Roland Garros. The court will have a retractable roof.
“I feel like he’s flexing his muscles a bit as the new French Federation president,” said Leif Shiras, the Tennis Channel analyst, after the Sharapova wild-card announcement. “I don’t think it was handled in the best way possible.”
Those who work with Giudicelli, previously the general secretary of the French federation, say that he is clearly relishing his higher-profile role, and that he also enjoyed maintaining the mystery on the Sharapova decision. Traditionally, tournament directors, not federation presidents, announce tournament wild cards. But Giudicelli insisted that he was not grandstanding.
“From the moment the request is made, Maria is a player like any other,” he said. “She cannot be treated separately. We announced the decision when we announced the other wild card decisions.”
Nonetheless, he did agree to meet with Sharapova separately in March at the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., when she was still serving her 15-month suspension for a doping violation. Clearly, that is not the usual treatment. But then Giudicelli, for all his enthusiasm for the sport, has sent other mixed signals.
The federation presidents who preceded him, Christian Bîmes and Jean Gachassin, have been investigated by French authorities for using their position for personal advantage. Bîmes was convicted and fined 30,000 euros in 2009 for having held paid posts at the federation and at a French broadcaster that held rights to televise the tournament. Gachassin, the former French rugby star, is under investigation for the illegal resale of French Open tickets.
Last year, the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné reported that Giudicelli also was suspected of involvement in such resales, an allegation he denies. But he will soon face charges in Corsica of favoritism in the construction of a new tennis center on the island in 2013. The court date, according to Giudicelli, is June 13, two days after the French Open ends.
“I am accused of not having respected the proper procedure, which I did not consider applied to us,” he said. “I fought for 10 years to have this training facility, and never in my life could I imagine being charged for this. This project was a league project, not my project. But I will take responsibility and go explain myself in front of the judge and show my good faith.
“It’s not a joyful moment, but we are in a state ruled by laws and there’s a company that contested this. And the law says if there is contestation, it has to be judged. So it will be judged, even if it’s clear that I prefer the atmosphere next to a tennis court over a court of justice.”
The sport in France could certainly use more of the former and less of the latter, but one thing is undeniable as you stare at the tricolor crane and the big pit in the botanical gardens: A new tennis court is definitely coming.