Thursday, February 17, 2011

Score One For Sentimentalists

Why keeping the French Open at Roland Garros means one less thing for me to be bitter about when I'm old.
Here in America we've got a colossal tennis stadium named after one of the greatest men to ever play the sport -- Arthur Ashe. But the stadium plays nothing like the man. Ashe was a master of nuance, an executor of subtleties, while the behemoth that bears his name is more reminiscent of the aisles of a Costco than a virtuous contrivance of sporting architecture.

The players seem to enjoy it, but good luck watching a match from the cheap seats. If you've ever wondered what it's like to watch two ants chasing a single yellow crumb for three hours, just come to New York around Labor day, take the 6 train to Queens, and hand $100 to the guy inside the glass booth at the box office.

Over the pond, in London and in Paris, they don't do the colossal thing -- thank heavens for that. What they do there is honor tradition. Not with words, but with actions. They've done it at Wimbledon since 1877, and they've done it at Roland Garros since 1928.

So why all the fuss about Roland Garros opting to embrace their tradition by renovating the grounds? Why the sudden desire to see a giant sprawling McMansion of a tennis facility in Versailles? How much more space do they need, and for what?

Space is an issue, I'll not argue that. But to me, it's not an issue that can't be overcome. Roland Garros will be adding 50% to it's acreage by 2016, and they'll still be playing the final in that magical structure that is THE PERFECT SPOT -- perhaps the most perfect on god's green earth -- to play a Grand Slam final.

I'm a guy who believes in ghosts, and when I go visit a place -- whether it be Fenway Park, Old Trafford, or any other of sport's certifiable cathedrals -- I yearn for the connection. I want to sit in my seat and revel in the magic and the mystery. Take Yankee stadium, for instance. I was there in 1978 to watch Reggie Jackson hit a home run on opening day. I've often reflected (especially lately, as they've knocked the old Stadium down) that the very same patch of earth where Reggie's feet were planted as he prepared to swing was the same patch that Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle planted their feet as they prepared to do the same.

There's a karmic synergy to this fact, and there's magic in the places that give birth to our memories. The fact that I could sit in my seat and not only watch a game, but also ponder the tremendous history of ALL THE GAMES that have taken place on the exact same speck of earth is part of the package for me.

For me, to even consider severing the cosmic vein connecting our pasts to our presents is an abomination. It's sacrilege, and a lot of the time it's unnecessary.

I feel I'm in the minority here as there are many who've spoken up about the need for more space to grow for the French Open. Amelie Mauresmo has said her piece, but I wonder -- would she be saying it if she'd ever kissed the clay at the conclusion of the French Open?

Philippe Chatrier, who was the head of the FFT from 1972 to 1993, gave his entire life to restoring the dignity of the French Open. According to Chris Gorringe, the former CEO of Wimbledon, "It is not overstating it to say that he almost single-handedly turned Roland Garros around...He refurbished the facilities at Roland Garros, which were looking tired. He improved the practice facilities, the prize money, the medical facilities, and all the elements that were important to the players."

It's good to know, even as Chatrier passed away after a bout with Alzheimer's in 2000, that the storied tradition of Roland Garros will continue where it started. Where the ghosts of Rene Lacoste, Suzanne Lenglen, Yannick Noah, Bjorn Borg, Rafa, Roger, Justine and Francesca are all resting, their droplets of blood and sweat all mashed into that beautiful red clay.

You can call me sentimental -- I'll take it as a compliment.

There are far too few bastions of excellence remaining in our world, and we need to embrace the process of ensuring that we don't cut ties with everything as soon as it becomes more profitable to do so. Sometimes, there's a steeper price to pay for a higher reward. The French have done a great service to the tennis world by resisting the call of commerce and heeding the groans of the ghosts that made their tournament a viable enterprise in the first place.

Now I can grow old with the knowledge that the spot that Francesca kissed, and the spot where Guga carved his heart, will be underneath the feet of future generations for years to come.

Isn't that a beautiful thing?


  1. Yes, it is a beautiful thing. I'm with you all the way. I'll not launch into how I feel as you've done so marvelously. Hurray for this wonderful post.

  2. Beautifully said! I think you put into words what a lot of tennis fans feel. I really do think that most of us are sentimental at heart.

  3. I was hoping for that project to win. So I´m glad that one day I´ll visit that same place that for years in a row I wondered to be in while watching the tournament on tv.

    And honestly, being a fan of architecture, the projects for a new place were quite disappointing. Incredibly how a "simple" roof on today´s central court looks better than all the km2 planned on the proposals "out of Paris".


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