French Open: The Ambience at Roland Garros

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By Michael Mewshaw

It’s doubtful that Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish expatriate to Paris, was referring to Roland Garros when he wrote: “From things about to disappear I turn away in time. To watch them out of sight, I can’t do it.” But it is of these lines from his novel Molloy that I’ve been reminded this spring at the French Open. In the press room, on billboards, in newspapers, everywhere there’s discussion of the “new” Roland Garros, the future, expanded facility, perhaps on the same site, perhaps at a different location. But no, from all this I must try to turn away in time.

I’m at an age where I’m still pining for the way Roland Garros used to be in the ’70s and ’80s when the grounds were less crowded and the ambiance more easygoing. Players and their families picnicked on the grass, under chestnut trees, fully accessible to fans. I remember Adriano Panatta, winner of the 1976 title, lining up with the rest of the crowd to buy a couple of pigs in a blanket, the delicious French version of a hotdog inserted into a baguette and doused with spicy hot Dijon mustard. Seeing this, Sports Illustrated immortal Curry Kirkpatrick puckishly remarked, “There goes the first player in history to eat his way out of the top 10.” Bel Adriano might have responded, “But oh what a way to go.”

Of course, now that I’ve had twenty years to acclimate, I must admit that Roland Garros in its current reincarnation is my favorite tennis venue.  Although big and rather bland on the outside, Courts Philippe Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen provide excellent match viewing and just enough intimacy to add intensity.  And then there is Court One, commonly called the Bullring, where the red clay suggests blood and sand and the stadium’s circular structure offers sol y sombra seating, the sun and shade changing places as afternoon advances into evening. Planners talk of tearing down Court One. But I don’t want to hear this and turn a deaf ear.

Talking heads complain that Roland Garros has gotten too crowded. They describe the walkway between Lenglen and Chatrier as a torture chamber, a painful gauntlet. But I don’t mind it. In fact I enjoy surfing through the throngs of spectators, bumping and grinding through an ocean of bodies. Sure, the foot traffic sometimes comes to a full stop. But that’s an opportunity to take in the lively street theater, the spontaneous commedia dell’arte as well as the professional performances of jugglers and acrobats. Seriously, there are often guys tossing half a dozen tennis rackets and girls tottering by on stilts. As in an Oriental bazaar, shops and food stalls line the route, and no appetite goes long unrequited. Food and drink, clothing and souvenirs, newspapers and outlets for recharging cell phones lie only an arms length away.

Then the whole heaving mass of humanity pours into Place des Mousquetaires, with its bronze statues of France’s famous Davis Cup-winning team of the ’20s and ’30s. On the surrounding wall and the hard stones of the plaza, spectators sit and watch matches on a massive video screen.  It’s the Gallic equivalent of Wimbledon’s Henman Hill, a spot where those who can’t afford tickets to the show courts get to follow the day’s featured matches.

Whatever the “improvements” planned for Roland Garros, I realize with anguish that I’ll miss it as it is now, just as I still miss the simpler, less hectic French Open of the ’70s and ’80s. But there’s the consolation, or maybe just the hope, that since I managed to accustom myself to the previous changes, I can acclimate to the new ones. But please, please don’t demolish the Bullring! If need be, transport it intact to the next location and let fans use it to reorient themselves. I accept that change, as the ancient Greek claimed, is the only thing that doesn’t change, but allow for the illusion that some of the best things endure.

Michael Mewshaw (mikemewshaw@aol.com) is the author of 20 books, among them Short Circuit, which is now available as an e-book.