Roland Garros

When tennis fans think of the grandest stages in the sport, Paris and the French Championships at Roland Garros ranks high on the list. Bud Collins, the Hall of Fame journalist and master chronicler of tennis, gives fans a snapshot look at the history of the French Championships in this excerpt from his newly-updated third edition version of his famous book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, available here:


Crimson clay has made the French Championship distinctive, the lone major contested on the footing beloved by dirt-kicking Europeans and Latin Americans. For 46 years (1928–74), Stade Roland Garros in Paris was an earthen oasis amid grass in the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. Championships. Wimbledon retains its lawns, the Aussies and Yanks have paved their hard, unforgiving rectangles, but clay stays the French way.

Although dating back to 1891 (men) and 1897 (women), the French Championships welcomed only citizens and permanent residents. Not until 1925 was that restriction lifted, the rest of the world invited in, and the French would become the fourth of the major international championships, making a Grand Slam possible. Even so, the concept didn’t seem feasible until 1933 when an Aussie, Jack Crawford, having carried his homeland, became the first alien male to subdue Paris (8-6, 6-1, 6-3 over homeboy Henri Cochet). He went on to win Wimbledon but his bid for a Slam was jammed by Fred Perry in the U.S. final. Don Budge showed up in 1938 and was the first American guy to conquer the clay (6-3, 6-2, 6-4 over Czech Roderich Menzel), and was halfway to his pocketing of the initial Slam. The most successful players in the French-only days were Cecilia Masson with six titles (1897–1900, 02-03) and Max Decugis with eight titles (1903-04, 07-09, 12-14).

But leading foreigners did come to town for an international tournament entitled Championnats du Monde sur Terre Battue—terre battue the French term for clay—that ran in 1912-13-14, 21, 23 in Paris (1922 in Brussels). After that, the label World Championships on Clay was dropped, but not before a small, dark-haired girl of 15 won it in 1914, and again in 1921 at 23. She was the unbeatable Suzanne Lenglen, who put France on the tennis map.

The 1924 Olympic Games in Paris gave the French another taste of internationalism, and the mood was “very insistent,” in the words of one writer, for the establishment of a French Championships (Championnats Internationaux de France) embracing players from wherever, joining the uppermost category. Thus France was in the exclusive four-member club, with four all-timers facing off for the introductory titles – Musketeers Rene (The Crocodile) Lacoste and Jean (Bounding Basque) Borotra, Lacoste winning, 7-5, 6-1, 6-4; La Lenglen beating the only nonnative, Brit Kitty McKane, 6-1, 6-2. First outlanders to enter the winners circle were Americans Vinnie Richards and Howard Kinsey in 1926 in men’s doubles, beating the other half of the illustrious Four Musketeers, Henri (Ball Boy of Lyon) Cochet and Jacques (Toto) Brugnon, 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. First among visitors to seize a singles title was Kea Bouman of the Netherlands, 6-2, 6-4, over South African Irene Bowder Peacock in 1927.

In 1925 and 1927, the tournament was played at Stade Francais in St. Cloud, and in 1926, it was held at the Racing Club of Paris, neither venue holding more than 5,000. But the Musketeers’ lifting the Davis Cup from the U.S. in 1927 made a larger venue necessary for the 1928 Cup defense, as well as the Championships. Rising near the Bois de Boulogne was Stade Roland Garros, named for a heroic French aviator who died in World War I, and a Court Central seating 10,000. On the crushed brick surface, seldom adored by Americans, the French crushed Bill Tilden and the U.S., 4-1. World War II shut down the tournament as it did Wimbledon and the Australian and brought about a sad, grisly chapter in Roland Garros history.

When the war began, the French government used it as a detention center for so-called dissidents and “other undesirables,” a number of them Jews who were at risk to be sent to the death camps when the Nazi invaders occupied Paris. One of the better known inmates, author Arthur Koestler (“Darkness at Noon”), wrote that, “We called ourselves cave dwellers, sleeping on wet straw beneath the stands which leaked.” Fortunately, he survived. In 1941, the Germans released the grounds to the French Federation, and the Championships resumed, obviously limited to locals and not included in official records.

They resumed in 1946, with, appropriately, a native victor, unseeded Marcel Bernard over favored Czech Jaroslav Drobny, 3-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3, an all-lefty finale. That French success didn’t recur for 37 years, until 1983 when Yannick Noah dethroned Swede Mats Wilander, 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), to be handed the Coupe Mousquetaires. Female victory rates the Coupe Lenglen, won in the post-Lenglen time by citizens Simone Mathieu in 1938-1939 and Francoise Durr in 1967. After another long wait, 33 years, the Franco-American Mary Pierce cheered a Parisian crowd by beating Spaniard Conchina Martinez, 6-2, 7-5, in 2000.

First major to say “bienvenue” to the pros and “Opens,” the French offered a $25,000 pot in 1968. Ken Rosewall won $3,000 in an all-Aussie final over Rod Laver, 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2, but runner-up for the other title, left-handed Brit Ann Jones, got the first prize women’s check of $1,000, even though she lost to Texan Nancy Richey, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1. Nancy, fearful of giving up her amateur status in that uncertain new year of prize money, is alone in the majors as a title-winning amateur woman in the post-’68 era.

The French was the second-to-last of the major championships to offer equal prize money to both men and women—offering equal prize money for both tournament champions in 2006 and awarding equal prize money across the board beginning in 2007.

The French has wandered on the calendar, but the dates have stood firmly (last week in May-first week in June) for decades. As interest has increased from 1960s doldrums, attendance and profits have gone up considerably, the scene improved. Court Central was enlarged, now holding 15,171 (named for Hall of Famer Philippe Chatrier, the driving force for modernization as French Tennis Federation president). A second stadium, the Court Suzanne Lenglen, holding 10,018, was added in 1995.

In 2007, play began on the first of three Sundays, making the French, a daytime event, a 15-day show, the longest of the majors. The French tried night tennis in 1969, but wisely discarded the floodlights after that. Darkness doesn’t intrude until about 9:30 PM. The French Championships were the last major to accept the tie-breaker, 1973, but never for the ultimate sets, fifth for men, third for women.

Roland Garros
Roland Garros