FRENCH OPEN: Tennis in a Time of Terror

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Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

By Michael Mewshaw

Tennis and terror, one assumes, are words that don’t go together. Not unless one is talking about a player’s terror when he’s down double match point. Historically the international tour has remained rather blithe about the threat of radical groups attacking players and/or spectators. Indeed, I remember that the 1982 Italian Open shared the tournament site at the Foro Italico with a bunker-like building where Red Brigades militants were on trial for assassinating Aldo Moro, the former prime minister of Italy. Yet on-court matches proceeded without competitors, fans or the press showing much interest and certainly no fear. Those days are gone now, and nothing indicates this better than this year’s French Open.

In the past, the metro stop at Porte d’Auteuil swarmed with ticket scalpers and food vendors offering freshly grilled merguez sausage. But this year after the spate of terrorist attacks, including the one last fall when an ISIS-related gang slaughtered more than 130 people, Paris appears to be an armed camp and Roland Garros might as well be the Green Zone in Baghdad. Police with flak jackets and automatic weapons stand guard at strategic spots, scrutinizing the crowd. Then every fifty yards or so, there’s a check point where uniformed security guards stop spectators, subjecting some to body frisks and instructing everyone to open his or her outer coat and show proof they’re not wearing a suicide vest. All bags are searched, including – perhaps one should say especially – journalists’ computer sacks and camera cases. Even after one has passed through the gates and onto the tournament grounds, spectators and the press are subject to random pat-downs.

As a reporter who has covered the Middle East, Central Asia and the entire length of North Africa, I can attest that I have never encountered such security except at the airport in Tel Aviv and the streets of Algiers during the Islamic insurrection that lasted a decade and killed 200,000. I mention none of this as criticism. To the contrary, under the circumstances, it’s to the credit of Roland Garros that it’s demonstrating such vigilance. And similarly it’s to the credit of tennis fans, foreign as well as French, that they have displayed cheerful patience not just out of love for the sport, but to prove they won’t be cowed by the threat of terrorism.

Michael Mewshaw has just published AD IN AD OUT, a collection of articles about tennis over the last four decades. It’s available as an e-book on amazon.com.