Today’s Flashback Friday feature originally published on May 26, 2016
The French Open is the premier clay court tennis championship in the world.
Officially named Internationaux de France de Roland-Garros and sometimes known as Roland-Garros, the tournament is held in Paris over two weeks in late May and early June. It is the second of four Grand Slam events contested annually and the only major championship played on clay. Founded in 1891 at the Tennis Club de Paris, the Championnat de France—the French Championships—is the third-oldest Grand Slam tournament, behind Wimbledon [founded 1877] and the U.S. Open [founded 1881]. The French Championships were originally open only to male tennis players who were members of French clubs.
The first winner, H. Briggs, was a Briton and a Paris resident. The “French club members only” format was played until 1925, when the event became open to all amateurs internationally. The first women’s event, with four entries, was held in 1897. Mixed doubles was added in 1902, followed by women’s doubles in 1907. Between 1891 and 1927, the tournament was played in Puteaux, at the Racing Club de France and at Tennis Club de Paris. In 1928, Stade Roland-Garros was built to host France’s first defense of the Davis Cup. It is named for Roland Garros, a French pilot who was the first fighter “ace” after shooting down five enemy aircraft during World War I.
The stadium is located in the museum district along the southern boundary of Bois de Bolulogne, a public park over twice the size of New York City’s Central Park. Roland-Garros is a 21 acre complex that contains 20 tennis courts, including three large-capacity stadiums, Les Jardins de Roland-Garros–a restaurant and bar complex, and the Tenniseum, a bilingual museum of the history of tennis. Located just over three miles from the Eiffel Tower, the principle venue is Court Phillippe Chatrier—named for the long-time president of Federation Francoise de Tennis. Situated in the center of the complex, Court Phillippe Chatrier seats 14,800 patrons during the Open, making it the smallest of the four grand slam venues.
Clay courts are made of crushed shale, stone or brick and are more common in Europe and Latin American countries than in the U.S, Canada or Britain. Clay surfaces are less expensive to construct but more costly to maintain. The courts at Roland Garros are surfaced with white limestone covered with a few millimeters of powdered red brick dust. Beneath the layer of porous limestone is volcanic rock and sand, all of which sits on a slab of concrete. The topical red brick dust is replenished daily during major championships. Clay courts are considered slow, producing longer points and fewer winners.
Unlike hardcourt surfaces, players slide into the shot on clay, and the surface heavily favors baseline players who use topspin. The clay builds up on players shoes and requires constant removal. Because of the slow playing surface and five-set men’s singles matches without a tiebreak in the final set, the French Open is considered to be the most physically demanding tennis tournament in the world. Past champions include Chris Evert, whose seven women’ singles titles at Roland-Garros are the most ever, and Rafeal Nadal, whose eight wins in Paris top the all-time men’s list.
During World War II, Roland-Garros was used as a prison for “indesirables”—primarily Hungarians, Russians, Italians and Poles suspected by the French government of being communists. In 1968, the French Championships became the first Grand Slam tournament to become an open event—marking the beginning of the Open Era—allowing both amateurs and professionals to compete. Before 1968, only amateurs were allowed to compete in Grand Slam events. Since 2007, men and women earn equal prize money—over € 1,800,000 for singles champion and € 450,000 for doubles winners—second only to the U.S. Open among Grand Slam events. The men’s singles winner receives the Coup des Mousquetaires—named after the Four Musketeers of French tennis: Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste.
Winner of the women’s singles event receives a miniature replica of the Coup Suzanne Lenglen—named after Suzanne Lenglen, the greatest French tennis star in history. Additional prizes include Prix Orange, awarded to the player demonstrating the best sportsmanship and cooperative attitude with the press, Prix Citron, for player with the strongest character and personality, and Prix Bourgeon for the tennis player revelation of the year.
Each year, over 2,500 French boys and girls, aged 12 to 16, apply for one of 250 positions as ramasseurs de balles—gatherers of balls. They undergo intensive training in the weeks leading up to the tournament and wear matching shirts and shorts while working the clay courts at Roland-Garros. During the past decade, there has been much discussion on expanding the current facility or moving the French Open to a completely new site, providing more space to allow the French Open to remain competitive with the other three Grand Slam events. The debate rages on within city council and in French courts as to the future of the venue.
On this date in 1956, American Althea Gibson beat defending champion Angela Mortimer of Great Britain [6-0, 12-10] to win the 55th Women’s French Open Championships single’s title. It was the first of Gibson’s six career Grand Slam titles. The following year, she won three legs the Grand Slam, with her only loss coming at Roland-Garros.