PARIS — It rained today, but it didn’t rain on one of the greatest parades in tennis —the parade of children who each year, on the first Wednesday of each French Open, descend upon Roland Garros.
From Lille or the Left Bank they come in jolly fre
eform hordes. Desperate teachers and controlling chaperones try and keep track of their footloose groups. Wide-eyed and amazed, the kids at first seemed awed by this land of Oz. Just follow the Yellow Brick Road: behind the curtains are churning crowds, massive stadiums and a curious sport played by wonder athletes.
From the outset, the mind asks, is there, within these gates, a future champion who will replicate the journey of that Belgian wisp, Justine Henin, who came here as a 10-year old and promptly vowed to come back and wear the Paris crown. But for most of these children, the task at hand is simply a matter of grabbing a scrap of paper (or better yet, one of those oversized tennis balls) to hunt down a slew of treasured autographs.
There’s a fast-paced Novak Djokovic in a hoodie being chased by a cadre of children. His protective publicist, looking worried, tries to keep up. Quick, there’s Henin herself escorted by burly guards. “JUS-TEEN, JUS-TEEN,” the children vainly shout. Within the stadiums, the kids enliven each match offering singsong cries, crescendo chants and howls of protest when officials order rain delays. So they poor out of the stands to play inventive soccer games (with plastic Perrier bottles as a makeshift balls) near the uncaring statue of Jean Borotra.
More than most days, the grounds today are a vibrant oasis, a world away from the sobering worries of economic collapses or oil spills. Alas on kids day, the only spill to worry about today is all that Häagen-Dazs chocolate that stains many a boy’s shirt — a small price to pay for a day of discovery of this sport, the sport of a lifetime.