If you love tennis and, especially, watching tennis on TV, there is no bigger thrill than entering the gates at the Roland Garros tennis grounds. Approaching this famous venue, you hear the leaves of the chestnut trees rustle and the thwump of ball against racquet behind green fences; the excitement when you enter the stadium is palpable.Tennis fan Linda Matthieu goes back stage at Roland Garros and discovers secrets of the star players and finds out all about the fabulous, famous venue…
The red clay courts of Roland Garros
That famous red clay of the courts is made up of white limestone, dusted with several millimeters of powdered red brick dust. Beneath the three-inch limestone layer is six inches of volcanic rock, a three-foot layer of sand, all sitting on a bed of concrete. There is just nothing else like it.
The major tennis tournament known as The French Open is held over two weeks between late May and early June at the famous Roland Garros stadium and is by far the largest clay court tournament in the world. The stadium is named after Roland Garros, not a tennis player, but a record breaking aviator who became a popular hero in France. Because of the slow playing surface and the five set men’s singles matches without a tiebreak in the final set, this event is considered to be the most physically demanding tennis tournament in the world. Players who can win on grass or hard courts often have trouble with winning on clay with the higher bounces and slower game, examples being John McEnroe and Venus Williams. Rafael Nadal, a Spanish player, has won eight times here.
Backstage Roland Garros Tour
Visit the press area where 1500 journalists and reporters sit during games and see the interview room where players are required to go after a game – there is a large fine if they don’t show up! You can go into the players dining area and locker room where they change and get ready. The rooms seemed rather small but, as it was pointed out, not all 128 men or 128 women are in the two rooms at the same time. Indeed Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will never be there at the same time due to ill feelings involving Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov.
A big thrill is to walk out onto the main court through the door the players use, you simply can’t help imagining what it would be like to not only play at that level but to be the centre of such attention and adulation.
Tennis player superstitions
Stefie Graf always wanted locker number 19 (I guess it was lucky for her) and when she retired, the door was removed and given to her and now the locker says “18 bis” which is like 18 1/2.
Rafael Nadal is the most superstitious player and has all sorts of routines – particularly with his hair and the placement of his water bottles by his chair on court.
Federer of Switzerland claims to be non-superstitious but appears to be obsessed with the No. 8. He wants to serve eight aces before beginning a match, requires eight towel rubs at the end of a set, sets up eight bottles of water courtside and carries eight rackets. This is because he was born on 8/8/81 at 8 AM. Seems to be working.
Serena Williams will wear the same pair of socks each day without washing them if she is on a winning streak.
Food at Roland Garros
If you are lucky enough to be a VIP, you can have meals at either the Grand Chelem (the Grand Slam) which is run by the caterer Lenôtre. Or perhaps or at the even higher class eating establishment, Potel et Chabot, where the President of Roland Garros and his friends and associates are greeted with flutes of champagne and dishes of foie gras.
For those of us in the general seating areas, there are salads, hamburgers and hotdogs as well as sandwiches made with artisanal bread baked by a famous chef. I was told by Berengere Rieu, services manager at Roland Garros, that the staff really want the public to have good food and to find the experience here to be wonderful and memorable. There is an epicerie that sells more upscale food to go, and a bistro if you want to take the time for a sit down meal by court seven in an area called les Jardins at Roland Garros. There’s also a bar called Macarons and Cocktails.
Top tip: On the left side of the Suzanne Lenglen Court you will find a nice, out of the way place with tables and chairs to enjoy your meals. You can even pre-order your meal on the internet and pick it up next day from a reserved area. I asked what was sold here that compares to the famous strawberries and cream served at Wimbledon and was told Macarons, no surprise as Paris is famous for the little cakes.
Roland Garros merchandise
It won’t take you very long to notice that there are several little boutiques around the grounds sporting the Roland Garros symbol. Clothing and other items associated with the tennis open tournaments have become a huge business. Roland Garros towels, with new designs each year are used by the players, and are the biggest sellers. The Swatch watch for Roland Garros, vials filled with the famous red clay and the jumbo balls children like to have autographed by famous tennis players are also very popular.
Roland Garros Ball Boys and Girls
David Portier is in charge of the ball kids who keep control of the tennis balls during matches, passing them to players to serve with and getting them to the right end of the court, as well as holding an umbrella over the heads of players between games in the rain.
Each year Roland Garros accepts 3000 applications for 250 positions. The kids go though a rigorous selection and training programme and have to “physically fit and good students” (because they have to miss three weeks of school). A staff member who had been a ball boy told me the experience had inspired him to study sports management and now he works at the stadium. By the way, he said that the nicest player he ever encountered was the American, now retired, James Blake.
I’ve been to all the major tennis venues and tournaments in the world and Roland Garros is my definite favourite. The sheer amount of preparation and attention to detail that this French tournament involves is awe inspiring. If you should be lucky enough to go, be prepared for any sort of weather. You may well roast in the sun, so always bring sunscreen and a hat. Or it can be very cold, so always bring a sweater or sweatshirt. You might be rained on, so bring an umbrella and a towel to dry the seat off afterwards. Of course, you can always go into one of the boutiques on the grounds and buy what you need.
No matter what the weather, Roland Garros is a fabulous experience.
Linda Matthieu is the author of Secrets of a Paris Tourguide (Amazon), a native Texan she now lives and writes in Paris.
Website for Roland Garros with details of tickets and online shop: www.rolandgarros.com