PARIS — Not having stopped here other than for a change of planes in nearly a year, I was delighted by the invitation to try out British Air’s Open Skies, a boutique flight to Paris that leaves from New York or Washington with only 85 passengers. The kindness of my hosts came just at the right time, as Mr. Pleszczynski and I had been discussing the French Open — the Championnats Internationaux de France, as they have been known since 1925 — and a few other items on the radar screen concerning this dear and old country, eldest daughter of the Church presently embroiled in a couple of savage wars of peace in Africa and engaged in a soul-searching debate regarding the proper limits on the press with regard to the private lives of public officials.
At the tournament, the only debates took place on this legendary site’s famous red clay, with most of the top players advancing through the first round yesterday and the day before, Sunday. The weather is perfect under the clear azure skies that my friends assure me have been the norm since the beginning of spring, turning even the gloomiest souls into dreamers, though raising concerns about drought.
The stadium itself, designed like one of those classical French gardens that make you think the world is rational, is so agreeable and well-organized that visitors turn happy — and courteous — even as they approach the gates on the avenue Gordon-Bennett, named for the founder of the New York Herald, also the Paris paper of the same name (many streets in Paris’ western quarters are named after Americans). It is hard to imagine that Roland-Garros, named for an aviation pioneer and World War I ace, was in competition last year with other locations to continue hosting this classic event in the tennis universe. Of the other four tournaments in the tennis grand slam circuit, only the All-England, held at Wimbledon near London, has never considered moving: the Australian and U.S. championships have, by contrast, seen changes in their locations.
These have been on balance happy moves. Although Flushing Meadows represented a sharp departure from Forest Hills with its classic handsome layout, its clay and grass courts, its class, you must allow, I suppose, that the huge season-ending event in U.S. tennis needs the space and the big-time environment its new digs provided.
There were good reasons to move the Internationaux away from Paris’s west side to a proposed new sports complex in a northern suburb. There was space there for a state-of-the-art stadium and facilities that other sports could use, for training as well as competition. French educational authorities as well as private athletic clubs are willing and often quite dynamic, but when you talk to the individuals involved you usually hear a note of apology for the second and even third tier levels of French amateur and professional athletics, with the possible exception of solo sailing and fencing.
If you build it they will learn, I suppose that was the argument. However, this is far from a sure thing, and the excellent athletes here (and on American basketball courts) who grew up in makeshift sports programs in eastern and central Europe underscore an observation someone made on the plane, money does not make champions, coaches and teachers do.
Not to get romantic about this, and I am sure good facilities cannot hurt, other things being equal, but anyway the French tennis federation opted to keep the tournament at its location near the Porte d’Auteuil, which is just at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in a neighborhood of sports stadiums, including the famous Parc des Princes football field, where the Lille club played an important game last Saturday, necessitating a major mobilization of gendarmes in full riot gear in anticipation of post-game fan exuberance, which fortunately stayed rational, as these things go, possibly because sufficient minds were concentrated by the highly visible police presence.
The expansion and redesign of Roland-Garros, scheduled for completion in 2016, calls for using nearby space to lay out some additional courts for both competitive play and training programs. A retractable roof will be fitted over the center court, whose bleachers already seats as many, about 10,000, as other major tennis stadiums.
It is a risky gamble to change the character of a tradition-bound sport in a radical way, and this includes the environment in which it is identified. With all due respect for the capital’s northern suburbs, they are not the venerable and expensive old west side with its wooded areas and tracks-and-field and vast elegant sun-lit apartments in handsome old seven-story buildings. There would not be the old racetrack across the street with its fin-de-siècle architectural motifs. There would not be the nostalgic small poets’ garden tucked away next door to the tennis stadium where children play and old men read verses inscribed on stones. It made sense in every way to build on what they already had. Roland-Garros has been improved upon several times since its original design, done in great haste to allow the famous Four Musketeers of French tennis to defend their Davis Cup against the revenge-seeking Americans, at the time still led by the legendary Bill Tilden, who remains a contender in the perennial game of “greatest of all time.” This was back in 1928, and they (I mean the Mousquetaires), won behind their own legendary champion, the crafty René Lacoste, known as the crocodile for the way he moved. Some tennis powers, as well as municipal bigs and ordinary citizens, question whether the proposed innovations can be successfully completed and worry about their cost, but those questions could be raised about a new venue as well.
ME PERSONALLY, I WAS DELIGHTED for the innovation in my travel habits provided by my Open Skies hosts. Lately I have been traveling in African army cargo planes and broken down trucks, so the opportunity to see how the other half gets from A to B was welcome. Let me tell you, if you are an athlete — and I am, I say this purely as an objective fact not as a boast, the leading over-the-hill tennis player on Washington’s entire east side, which means I can beat Mr. Tyrrell, especially if we play after discussing critical questions relating to Republican Party politics over a few martinis — traveling on Open Skies is the ticket. They keep you in perfect comfort and get you on and off the plane and into Paris in record time. I have never spent less time getting out of an airplane and to my final destination, not that I am always sure what that is. They have the good sense to fly into Orly airport on the city’s southern outskirts and scarcely a quarter hour to the river, whereas the appalling Charles-de-Gaulle wasteland is way over in some distant zone to the northeast from which you cannot reach Paris in less than an hour.
The seats are fantastic. Of course, my standard of recent comparison is benches in a Tupolev flying over an African desert (superb American-trained pilot, soldiers and their families, some with barnyard animals, but hey, I have also been in steerage). Seriously, this is the way to go. You can stretch your legs, you can have a drink — or several — you can read, you can speak to an elegant stewardess in any language you want, you can quote either Shakespeare or Corneille and she gets it, you can eat, you can not eat, you lean over and discuss restaurants and museums and sporting news with a fellow passenger who turns out to know more than you do instead of talking for eight hours about currencies and tips, or you can stay by yourself and enjoy the magic of moving through the clouds.
How blessed we are! How foolish to let our human sins undermine all the wonderful gifts our God-given brains have made for us! Why cannot the Arabs get their acts together? Hah? I ask you. Not a single Arab competitor in high-level tennis. Well, the Russians have got there, several of them, at least among the women, have a clear shot at reaching the final next week, and look where they were just a few years ago. Freedom will out, my friends, and tennis is the index of its progress.
After all — look at Rafael Nadal. This child of the New Democratic Spain — admittedly wracked by unseemly disturbances over the weekend, which threaten to cause real trouble down the road — this young man (24) from the Balearic Islands, was inconceivable during the years of the dictatorship. They had great players in Manuel Santana and Andres Gimeno, but not the explosion of talent across all fields, not just sports, which he epitomizes. I admit I am of those who sometimes asks whether Don Francisco got a bad rap, or at least an exaggerated rap, and whether the new Spain gets too wide a berth from American Deweyites (“the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy”), but freedom, freedom — it is their country, let them deal with it. In the meantime, they have produced some fantastically good tennis players.
One of whom is David Ferrer, who advanced easily to the second round. Rafa Nadal will try to equal the mighty Bjorn Borg’s record six victories here. The unexpected is always possible, but the man who may stop him is likely to be either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, who are in the same bracket and therefore will meet but for an upset. They both started out easily yesterday with straight set victories, although Feliciano Lopez forced Federer to a tie-break in the third.
The only surprise on the men’s side, actually, was the comeback from two sets down by a 31-year old French qualifier, Stéphane Robert, over the Czech Thomas Berdych in a thriller whose final set (where there is no tie-break) went to 9-7.
The Americans are not shining, with the graceful and fierce Williams sisters out of the running due to health problems and our teenage star Melanie Oudin already overwhelmed by the defending champion Francesca Schiavone. The men are represented by an attractive but weak field relative to what we usually send here, Isner, Querrey, Fish. The French have Gasquet and Monfils, maybe Simon, Tsonga, Bennetteau, while their Michael Llorda is already out. Perhaps the countries that sent the finest players of their time to Roland-Garros in its infancy, will be doing so again when all the renovations are finished in about four years’ time. It will be a gorgeous stadium then.
But then it always was.