I’m often asked – “What’s it like is to cover the French Open?”
It’s an easy question to answer, it’s simply amazing. Think Paris in the springtime, the most visited city on the planet, and nestled in the south western corner is Stade Roland Garros, the home of the year’s second tennis Grand Slam.
I first reported at the French Open in 2003 where Juan Carlos Ferrero won the men’s title and Justine Henin the women’s. It was notable from a New Zealand perspective because the men’s runner up Martin Verkerk had a Kiwi coach in Nick Carr. At the time I was mesmerised by the class of the place, the chic elegant fans, the quality of the food, the wine, and of course clay court tennis up close and personal, something foreign to most Kiwis, being from a country where to my knowledge we still don’t have any proper clay courts.
I’ve been fortunate to return a dozen times since, principally as a radio and TV commentator and reporter. The tournament itself has not changed greatly in that time, and will have its first major overhaul in the next few years when the Philippe Chatrier centre court is rebuilt to include a roof, (ready for the 2020 tournament) a new greenhouse show court (ready in 2019) and seating 5000 people that will be built in the adjacent Serres d Auteuil gardens. The redevelopment will create much needed space for the thousands of fans who flock through the gates every year. The French Open is held on a compact 8.6 hectare site currently and will expand to 9.6 hectares when the renovation is complete. It will have a capacity for 40 thousand daily spectators with centre court remaining at its current 15 thousand capacity but with a retractable roof. By comparison Roland Garros (named after a French aviator) is dwarfed by the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open grounds. But although it can take time to negotiate your way around due to the congested walkways, I like the intimate cosy feel of the place. While it’s shorts, tee shirts and jandals at Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadows, the French love to dress up. They’re stylish and knowledgeable tennis fans and it’s easy to people watch while eating a baguette.
My favourite court is Court One, the third of the show courts after the Phillipe Chatrier centre court (capacity 15,000) and Suzanne Lenglen. (10,000) It’s aptly named the ‘Bull Ring’ a circular court where the fans create an electric atmosphere especially when French player are playing. It has a capacity of just under 4000 and when full generates an atmosphere to compare with the two bigger courts.
The media seats are in the front row in line with the baseline and it’s not uncommon for a player’s racquet to come within a metre of you when they slide to their left to try to retrieve a ball.
However this court will be knocked down when the stadium is redeveloped to make way for an expanded Place des Mousquetaires, the area where fans can congregate to watch the tennis on big screens. It’s popular for fans who have ground passes which gain access to all the courts except the big three.
If you are coming to Roland Garros for the first time, as is the case for all the Grand Slams, come in the first week where so many good matches are scheduled on the outside courts. Last week Nick Kyrgios played Philip Kohlschreiber out on court three where the fans get closer to the action than the big show courts.
Unlike the Australian Open and US Open which have late night sessions and Wimbledon where play can continue until 11pm, the latest matches in Paris go to is around 9.30pm before it gets too dark, and usually much earlier allowing fans to experience the delights of the many bistros and brasseries all within a short walking distance, or a 30 minute metro ride into the San Germain area of the city for dinner. This is likely to change on centre court when the roof is in place with the introduction of night sessions.
Roland Garros was originally built in 1928 in just a few months to enable the famous Musketeers of French tennis Jacques Brugon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste, to defend the Davis Cup which they had won 12 months earlier in the US.
The streets in the surrounding suburb of Boulogne leading to Roland Garros are dotted with Boulangeries, patisseries, butchers, café’s and restaurants, the smell of fresh fruit and pastries and fresh flowers. I imagine the locals hardly ever need to go to a supermarket with the tradition of supporting the small local businesses alive and well.
Tickets are hard to get but there are travel packages and tickets that you can purchase from Championship Tennis Tours (https://www.tennistours.com/french-open).
Accommodation is plentiful and varied in Paris with many locals now renting out rooms on Air B&B at reasonable rates proving popular.
And here’s the thing, eating out: the cost of the food and drink at the tennis is similar to sporting events in New Zealand taking in account the exchange rate. People think its Paris and must be expensive. My favourite restaurant a short 15 minute stroll from the stadium has a four course dinner with half a bottle of wine, and an aperitif for 32 Euros ($50) and the food is simple, tasty and fresh. Try finding that in Auckland.
I have been fortunate to watch and report on some fabulous matches over the years. It’s hard to pick a favourite but for sheer drama the 2013 semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic stands out. Djokovic fell agonisingly short of producing a remarkable victory with Nadal winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 6-7, 9-7 in more than four and a half hours.