Jam-Packed Reality: Time to Kiss Roland Garros Goodbye

My column on AOL Fanhouse

Rafael Nadal had won the French Open after a year of uncertainty about his body, his career, his family, and it all came in the same place where Francesca Schiavone had won a day earlier, and rolled around in the red clay like a little kid. I admit to feeling the emotion.
And the ghosts, too, of Roland Garros, of Bjorn Borg, Suzanne Lenglen, Rene Lacoste. So I went down to the court, pulled a Tic Tac box from my pocket, emptied it, scooped up the red clay and took some history home.

On Sunday, the French tennis federation will vote on whether to keep the French Open at the quaint spot in Paris, or possibly to move to a modern expanse in, gulp, the suburbs.

How do you feel about that, about what modernization is doing to our most cherished sports memories? Is your baseball team still in the place of your greatest childhood memories? Your football team?

Two hours after the Chicago Bears lost to Philadelphia in the playoffs a few years ago at Soldier Field, the old place was coming down to make room for a new stadium. Modern times insisted. It was a rush job.

So I went out to the stands for one last look. Sat there. Called my dad on the cell. Talked about seeing the Bears there as a kid, watching Stan Smith in a tennis tournament there. My dad said he saw auto races there.

History. Even Jack Dempsey fought Gene Tunney in the famous long count. Al Capone had bet on Dempsey.

The bulldozers were already there when my dad mentioned something about, well, never really liking the place. I noticed it smelled like urine. The seats were uncomfortable and didn’t even face the middle of the field. The bathrooms are disgusting, the food no good, the sightlines a disaster.

We started laughing and realized: The place is a dump.

Reality weighs more than memories.

This takes me back to Roland Garros. It is beautiful, romantic, nostalgic. It’s not a dump. But it is a terrible, terrible place to watch a tennis tournament.

Terrible.

Sacrilege? Just reality. Reality from a guy with a Tic Tac container of red clay on his desk.

They jam the entire French Open onto 21 acres. Wimbledon and the Australian are on 49. And it’s not just about big crowds and half-hour long lines to get food, though there is that, too.

To watch from the main stadium is nice. But it’s the grounds, where most matches are played, where the experience is lost.

At the U.S. Open, you get a pass and wander the outer courts. You can stand between them and watch a match if you like. If the match loses your interest, just turn around and see another one. You keep tabs on several matches, hustle over when you hear of something big happening, stand and watch there. Sure, there are seats if you know you want to stay in one spot all day. It’s a similar setup at Wimbledon and the Australian.

The French? It is so jammed, with vines covering fences, that you can’t see into courts from the outside. So you wait in line. 

Half an hour. An hour. It’s hot. And in France, no one has ever taught anyone how to wait in line without pushing or cutting in front.

By the time you finally get into a court to take a seat, if the match has gone bad, you are faced with a big decision: Leave now, having blown the 45 minutes it took to get in, find another court, wait 45 more and hope a good match there isn’t over yet by the time you get in. Or, just sit there watching a bad match.

The other three majors, too, have spacious areas to sit and watch matches from the center court on a massive screen, eat and congregate. Around the fountains at the U.S. Open. On the hill at Wimbledon. On lounge chairs, with live bands playing at the Australian.

The French has a tiny area like that, but everyone bumps into everyone. Last year, I felt so bad for the two Haagen Dazs girls who had to stand there — and sell me ice cream every day — that I started buying them ice cream, too.

When bad weather hits? Nowhere to hide, other than one small hall outside Court Phillippe Chatrier, — center court — where thousands mob in and … won’t … move.

Versailles is the most likely site for the tournament. It’s not perfect. The wait for a train from Paris to Versailles can take forever. It is way out in the bright, clean suburbs. But the palace and gardens are in Versailles, and more importantly, there is space. 

They can build a new experience and make new history.

There are some botanic grounds near Roland Garros, and the Paris government didn’t want the tournament to expand there.

They wanted the green space. Besides, those gardens are hundreds of years old, too, talk about ghosts. But now, Paris’ mayor has decided that they can build a new stadium out onto the garden areas. Don’t move. Expand. Tournament officials say if they choose that route, they’ll keep the gardens in tact somehow.

Still, on the grounds, the courts are too close together. I think they would need to tear most of it down and start over, keeping the Bullring court, a tiny stadium with incredible feel, as a tribute.

The U.S. Open moved from the quaint neighborhood in Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow, which is not scenic or beautiful.
For the past two years during the Open, I’ve gone to Forest Hills and hit tennis balls at the old stadium.

Yes, you feel the ghosts there, too. But the place just wasn’t big enough to hold a modern major sporting event.

The U.S. Open had to move. That doesn’t mean I don’t value the memories. A small hunk of concrete from the Forest Hills stadium sits on my desk right next to the Tic Tac box.

Follow me on Twitter@gregcouch

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

4 responses to “Jam-Packed Reality: Time to Kiss Roland Garros Goodbye

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