Hands Off the French! Intimacy Gives Venue Its Charm
Hands Off the French! Intimacy Gives Venue Its Charm
By Donal Lynch April 14, 2010
Along with the fact that nobody was planning to “steal my childhood” by sending me to a tennis academy, the harshest sporting truth I ever had to absorb as a young person was that tennis is really better on TV. I based this opinion on several trips to the U.S. Open, where from my stadium seat I would hear some faintly audible squeaking a few miles of corporate suites below me and later be told that this had been Monica Seles’ “famous grunt.” It was like viewing a tennis court the way Bette Midler saw the world—blue and green and very far away—but unlike Bette, my friends and I weren’t soothed and uplifted by this distance. In fact, while we kept reassuring each other that “you can’t beat the atmosphere at the Open,” we were really thinking that the atmosphere could have been considerably improved upon if they had gotten rid of the monstro-bowl we were sitting in and instead built a stadium in which we wouldn’t mistake Pete Sampras for Steffi Graf. I vowed that until I became the CEO of American Express or achieved Baldwin brother ticket preference, I would stick to watching the Open in my uncle’s basement.
So it was with some trepidation a few years later in Paris that my friends and I handed over our night’s drinking fund to a scalper outside Roland Garros. Sure, the red clay that led to the stadium fueled fantasies that we were actually on our way to play ourselves. And sure, waffles drizzled with warm nutella could be classified as an end in and of themselves. But would the non-bourgeois be able to make out the matches from where we sat? Mais oui! As we made our way onto the grounds, a leafy wonderland of sensibly-sized stadia unfolded in front of us. You didn’t have to be a mogul or a mayor see what was going on. And if you screamed a marriage proposal at Serena Williams from the cheap seats of Stade Roland Garros or Suzanne Lenglen, it wouldn’t be lost in the din of overhead jets. This, we all agreed, was tennis as it should be.
Roland Garros' Court 1, better known as the Bullring, is one of the better venues in tennis. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
You would think the French Tennis Federation would be smugly congratulating itself on this state of affairs. But instead, like some body-dysmorphic teenager, the organization is eyeing the profit-enhancing makeovers that the other Slams have undergone and wondering whether it too shouldn’t get extensions and beef up a bit. According to tournament director, Gilbert Ysern, to compete the organizers will have to either enlarge the stadia at Roland Garros or move the whole show to Versailles. Or Euro Disney (presumably with a warm-up tournament in Dollywood).
Part of the impetus for a venue change was a “long list of complaints” about the Roland Garros facilities which Roger Federer issued to Ysern at Monte Carlo last year. This in turn prompted Ysern to catastrophize the situation—to suggest the tournament could become obsolete. Maybe he was imagining that the French Open would become a latter-day Australian-Open-of-the-1970s, perhaps with Margaret Court and Chris O’Neill coming out of retirement to vie for the women’s title and the top men being only vaguely aware that the whole thing was taking place.
To this line of thinking the tennis fans of the world must surely answer: “By all means buy Fed a new gold-plated port-a-potty, but hands off the fairest of all the Slams.” Tennis is a sport that, like comedy or theater, is at its best in intimate, traditional settings. The best-kept fan secret is that you actually get a much better view of the action at tour-level events, even if the stakes are lower for the players. And when those tournaments try to emulate the hugeness of the Grand Slams by enlarging or modernizing venues, it hasn’t always been to the benefit of the spectators or the atmosphere. The Italians once upgraded the Foro Italico to relegate the dramatic and historic Pallacorda, a stadium ringed by fascist-era statues, to second-court status. The most beautiful and atmospheric of all European courts was downgraded, mainly because you can’t chisel a corporate box out of ancient marble. They’ve recently given the place another makeover, which I hope gives it a stronger link to the past.
This facilities arms race between the Slams is unfortunate. The U.S. Open semis and final now take place in what is essentially a football stadium—many of the people who were present at Serena’s infamous tirade last year couldn’t tell from their seats in the rafters why the match had ended, and had to find out later from TV reports. That would never happen at Roland Garros. The grounds of the French Open may get obnoxiously crowded, but once you do get inside a stadium court—and the truth is, it’s much easier to scalp tickets there than at, say, Wimbledon—you’re almost guaranteed a good view.
What about the other majors’ “improvements”? The Australian Open’s new blue courts, while pleasantly slow, are such a jarring break from the look of the tournament in the 1990s that it’s tempting to put that “fifth Beatle” cowbell back on it for another few years. Wimbledon’s retractable roof can be considered a rare triumph, but do we really want the French to put a lid on it? Anyone who has ever hit on indoor red clay knows that that is only slightly preferable to hacking around in the rain. The French must simply take a deep breath, look across the channel and accept that, while they may not have a roof on Court Central, they do have many things the Lawn Tennis Association doesn’t. A few good players, for one.
Ysern really needn’t worry about the players coming, no matter what veiled threats they may have made. The organizers could hold the French on a popcorn surface and insist the players turn out in drag, and I guarantee you Federer would be there in late May, speaking earnestly about how popcorn was a “new challenge” and hoping his thighs didn’t look big in his new Mermaid outfit. So listen carefully to his concerns, Gilbert, and fill Roger’s locker with blue M&Ms, fresh cut flowers and a jewel-encrusted jock strap. But whatever you do, please don’t mess with the best of all the Slams.
Donal Lynch is a New York City-based correspondent for the Sunday Independent, a newspaper in his native Ireland. He attended the French Open as a spectator in 2004, 2005 and 2008.