After almost two decades of growing pains, Roland Garros, the historic but claustrophobic home of the French Open, can finally breathe easy — thanks to the “greenhouse effect.”
Players and fans who make the annual pilgrimage to the clay-court showpiece, which gets underway on Sunday, would notice radical changes this year as the tournament plays catch-up with its Grand Slam big brothers at Wimbledon and the US and Australian Opens.
Where those three have expanded effortlessly, embracing 21st century technology with modern stadiums and retractable roofs, Roland Garros planners have spent their time in legal wrangles, fighting opposition to expansion plans from their well-heeled and powerful neighbors in one of Paris’s plushest suburbs.
Roland Garros was “in danger of asphyxiation,” then-French Tennis Federation president Christian Bimes said in 2007.
That was when earlier plans were dropped after Paris lost out to London in its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.
Always at the heart of court battles — and consequently the cause of the delays to expansion dreams first hatched in 2002 — were a batch of humble greenhouses.
Built in the 19th century, the greenhouses in the adjacent Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil are home to rare flora and fauna.
The gardens would be in peril from plans to build a 5,000-seat stadium next to them, campaigners said.
The federation, which once even pondered abandoning Roland Garros in favor of a new site in the suburbs, eventually triumphed in its court tussles.
The greenhouses have been renovated and renewed, and work on a new semi-submerged arena is well under way and would be operational for next year’s French Open.
It is to be called the Simonne-Mathieu stadium in honor of a former national women’s champion and French resistance fighter in World War II.
“It is the symbol of a new Roland Garros,” said Gilles Jourdan, who is in charge of the project. “It will allow the tournament to breathe.”
Another new stadium — Court 18, which is to be bizarrely renamed Court 14 for next year — is already finished and is being used for this year’s tournament.
Qualifying matches this week are being played on the arena tucked away in the western corner of the complex.
Court 18 can accommodate 2,200 people, and with Court One — affectionately dubbed “The Bullring” — set to be demolished to open up public spaces even more, it is to be one of the event’s showcase arenas.
Two other courts, right in the shadow of the centerpiece 15,000-capacity Court Philippe Chatrier, are also to be new additions.
Court Seven can hold 1,500 fans, while Court Nine can hold 500.
However, demolished already is the popular art-deco Court Two.
“It was time for the complex to have a fresh look. It was starting to get a little outdated,” said 24-year-old Jordan Sacksick, a spectator watching qualifying this week. “The whole place is more airy.”
Once the 358 million euro (US$420.3 million) transformation is completed in time for the 2021 French Open, the Court Philippe Chatrier is to boast a retractable roof.
As well as making rain delays a thing of the past, the roof would facilitate lucrative night sessions, which are expected to generate between 100,000 and 150,000 extra ticket sales in the two-week event.
Despite the new-look Roland Garros expanding from 8.5 hectares to 12.5 hectares, it is to remain the smallest of the four Grand Slams.
Wimbledon stretches out over 17.7 hectares and the US Open spreads for 18.8, while the Australian Open boasts plenty of elbow room at 20 hectares.
Wimbledon and the US Open are to have two roofed courts; Melbourne already has three.
“We are not trying to battle to be the biggest or to be all about quantity. It’s rather about quality,” federation director-general Christophe Fagniez said.
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