Why the French Open needs to move
February, 15, 2011
By Stephen Tignor, TENNIS.com | ESPN.com
If we move elsewhere, maybe the site is going to be bigger, [but] we're going to lose part of our soul.
These were the words of Rafael Nadal when he was asked last year whether the French Open should consider relocating in 2015. Rafa is nothing if not dramatic, but why would he want to change anything about Roland Garros anyway? It's been very good to him. Who knows what might happen in the shadow of the Sun King's palace in Versailles. The King of Clay's mojo might be totally thrown.
And Nadal isn't wrong. My favorite tournament is Wimbledon, for the same reasons he states. The history is tangible there; the thought of all the legendary moments that have gone before in Centre Court links what you're watching now to something greater and deeper. And I like having that sense at Roland Garros as well. Plus, the two big arenas, Chatrier and Lenglen, are excellent viewing spaces, with stands that are very close to the playing area and which help create the intense fan atmosphere that the tournament is known for.
But I still believe the French Tennis Federation should have moved the tournament. For all of the history on those grounds in the Bois de Boulogne, the event has outgrown them. It's difficult to appreciate and enjoy the atmosphere amid the crowds that pile into each side court and jam every walkway.
The USTA faced a similar decision in 1977. The U.S. Open's traditional home, the West Side Tennis Club, was even more overrun during its two weeks; fans had to walk over other fans who were lying down to a get a glimpse of the courts underneath the wind screens on the back fences. Three decades later, no one believes it was the wrong move to get out of Forest Hills. There was no choice.
Versailles, in particular, would have made a spectacular location, and it isn't an overly long distance from the city. It would have cost the federation more money to start from scratch, but that's money that could have been recouped in the years ahead at the larger facility. And though the tournament will remain on the Roland Garros grounds, it won't be the same Roland Garros. Two of its finest stadiums, the intimate Lenglen and the even more intimate, 4,000-seat Bullring, are going to be demolished anyway.
Most important, though, any new facility would have retained the true signature of the French Open: its red-clay courts. They say the mark of being French is speaking the French language -- nothing more, nothing less. Likewise, the mark of France's tennis tournament is nothing more or less than its surface. It's the only Grand Slam played on clay, and the sight of dirt is enough to make it feel like the French Open.
There is one player, at least, who disagrees with Nadal. "I hope they won't get in trouble by making this decision," Amelie Mauresmo said this week. "I don't know if the tennis aspect prevailed. I have some doubts. I was more in favor of a development, of an ambition, to move."
The "ambition to move." The U.S. Open has shown that ambition, as has the Australian Open, which went to Melbourne Park in 1988. Wimbledon has rightfully stayed put, but that hasn't stopped it from revamping and modernizing its landscape. It's hard not to think that the French have fallen short by comparison. Roland Garros is a wonderful spot, but the French Open would flourish anywhere in France.