Idiots’ Guide to Roland Garros
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
If you were one of the tens of thousands who descended on Roland Garros Monday afternoon with a ticket that allowed you onto all of its 18 courts except the three main ones, then you could hear a lot of tennis – you could hear the “wave”; you could hear the chants of “Reechard! Reechard!” as France’s Richard Gasquet went up two sets to love against #4 seed Andy Murray (only to lose); occasionally you could even hear the sound of a racket making contact with a ball – but getting to see any tennis turned out to be a trickier proposition.
Of course you could see the great Roger Federer on IBM screen outside the legendary Philippe-Chatrier stadium. But let’s face it, the crowd milling around outside had seen the Swiss world #1 on TV often enough, even if not on a TV the size of a small house. Yes, there he was, perhaps only 50 yards away from where you stood, breezing through his first-round match, but unfortunately there was an enormous wall of concrete and glass interposed between you and any chance of glimpsing him in the flesh – even for a nanosecond.
And it was hot. Oh, it was very hot – and very, very crowded and confusing. The grounds of Roland Garros are shaped like a very long thin wedge of expensive cake. You come in at the wide end, where you soon find yourself squeezed in the direction of La Place des Mousquetaires between Philippe-Chatrier and the enormous bowl known simply as Court No. 1. And there you seem to stay for at least an hour with all the other people sticky with ice cream and sun screen who don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing and are probably wondering why on earth they spent 120 Euros over the Internet for a ticket whose face value is only 21 Euros, not that you can get it at face value anywhere.
Eventually, of course, you figure things out. This happens when you find an official who actually has a map of the grounds and is willing to give it to you. And it is then — Eureka! — that you realize that Roland Garros is shaped, as mentioned, like a slice of cake, or tart, or maybe even cheese, and that all the courts you’ve been looking for are way down the narrow end, and that they’ve sold way too many tickets.
By this point, unfortunately, you are already exhausted from the extremely hot sun, for spots of shade are few and far between. In one little shadowy corner, under the staircase leading to one of the Forbidden Stadia, guarded by stylish nymphs in chic cream dresses, there is the touching sight of ball boys outfitted in orange shirts and black shorts warming up before going on court. Ferociously serious, they’re practicing throwing an imaginary tennis ball low across the ground and down the lines, as soon they will be doing before thousands of people. They’re between eight to fourteen years old, and naturally they’re nervous. Probably as nervous as the players if not more so.
I am with three others – my wife, my brother, and his girlfriend, who has been to Wimbledon and is definitely not taken with the French sense of organization. As far as she is concerned, Roland Garros is a flat-out, sun-baked nightmare. She is not happy at all. But we do finally get to see some tennis – a bit of a men’s match that is not terribly interesting, and a bit of a women’s match that is not terribly interesting either.
As we stand around in the grueling heat, wondering where to go next, my brother, Tim, lightens things up by relating a story about Lucian Freud, who as it happens has a show at the Pompidou Center in the center of Paris. One day Tim left his basement apartment in London, glanced up at the sidewalk above him, and saw the great man stooped over a bush of tiny flowers. Tim was looking straight into his face, into his eagle eyes fastened on the flowers. Mr. Freud picked a couple and then hurriedly walked off. (He moves very quickly for an octogenarian.) Out of curiosity, Tim followed him for a couple of blocks and then stopped in front of two policemen. “Do you know who that is?” he asked them excitedly, pointing out Mr. Freud. “That’s the world’s greatest living painter!” “Oh, yeah?” the bobbies replied, unimpressed. “He’s Sigmund Freud’s grandson!” “Oh, yeah?” they repeated. Finally my brother pulled out the ace. “He painted Kate Moss in the nude!” “Oh, yeah?” Now they were interested.
In the end we do see some tennis: The court looks much smaller than on TV, but it’s hard to tell whether the players look smaller as well, or if the courts look smaller because they seem bigger. During the warm-ups they practice each shot: backhand, forehand, lob, smash, serve, volley. But during the matches you hardly ever see a volley: No one comes to the net. The one-handed back hand is on its way out also. Federer has one, but it’s his weakest shot (though it’s a major reason why his game is so elegant), and opponents prey on it mercilessly. The Spaniard Tommy Robredo has a terrific one-hander. We watch him play Victor Troiki on court 17, but Troiki wins in straight sets.
Really, you need to go to Roland Garros twice. The first time to figure it out, the second time to enjoy it.