By Ros Satar
(June 9, 2013) PARIS – In these times of austerity, few countries would be forgiven for raising a skeptical eyebrow (or perhaps a Gallic shrug) at the ambitious modernization plans for the Roland Garros site.
But as the 2013 men’s final rolls around amidst cloud and rainy spells, and the potential for another Monday finish, how many people will rue the lack of a roof (amongst other improvements)?
There was recently concern that in order for Roland Garros to keep up with the other Slams, it would have to move from its current home.
The locations under consideration were Marnée-la-Valle (which is the site of the Euro-Disney resort), a suburb of northern Paris (Gonesse) or over to a vacant army base near Versailles, a wealthy suburb southwest of Paris.
But given that Roland-Garros is the major source of funding for French tennis and its continued development across the country, those plans have now been shelved in favor of developing the site at Auteuil.
Gilbert Ysern, Chief Executive of the French Tennis Federation (FFT) and tournament director elaborated: “The Tour de France and Roland Garros do send a very positive image of France around the world.”
“It is important to create a more positive message,” he continued.
“The vast majority [of politicians] understand that it is about the event.”
This event generates an approximate surplus of €70m, of which €20m will be re-invested in the facilities and €50m goes back into French tennis development and resources.
In addition there is an impact of approximately €250m on the Paris economy in terms of hotels, restaurants, local apartment rentals, etc.
Roland Garros contributes 85% of the FFT’s gross revenue (approximate €160m).
The site was built in 1928 so that the famous “Mousquetaires” – the Davis Cup winning team of Borotra, Brugnon, Cochet and Lacoste could defend their title, won in Philadelphia the year before, as well as a place to hold the French Championships.
Now it is recognized at the pinnacle of the clay court season but now it finds itself needing to keep pace with its cousins in Melbourne, London and New York.
The plans include a retractable roof for the top of Court Philippe Chatrier and even the possibility of scheduling night matches.
While we are on the subject of roof-gate, it is sometimes touted as the cure of all ills – get a roof, problems all fixed.
Well, not really so – What it fixes is getting through a schedule to try and get the big event to the finish line on time.
What it does NOT do is give the poor paying public any respite from the very unpredictable elements (Yes U.S. Open, I am looking at you!).
Rain is miserable at the best of times. Rain when you have paid a small fortune for tennis tickets, and taken days off work, AND have nowhere to shelter is a sense of purgatory that can rival the most soporific match.
The modernization does mean opening up the site into the surrounding area, but also creating more space for the public to move.
Anyone who has ever been here, especially when both show courts let out at the same time, will know that it can take you an age to get anywhere else on the site.
It makes negotiating Oxford Street, London at Christmas time seem like a leisurely, purposeful stroll.
The new plans include a 75ft wide walk walkway to the West of Philippe Chatrier Court, and to the west the creation of a new Place de Mousquetaires.
The idea is that the increased space will help the flow of spectators around the grounds.
They also plan to open it to the public outside the tournament so local residents can enjoy the open area.
Which brings us to perhaps the main inhibitor to their plans – the extension into the historical public gardens nearby – the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.
Vitriolic postings and petitions have raised an outcry that something as trivial as a two-week tennis tournament should encroach on a piece of French heritage.
The actual historically listed Formigé greenhouses will not be touched, but rather the 1980’s built “technical” and “hot” houses will be remodeled around a new court.
The entire project would run in three phases (from 2015) with two tournaments in between.
And it raises an interesting concept – one that is sometimes asked back in London – the “what do you do with the place the other 50 weeks of the year?”
Holding conferences and cultural events at areas of historical and/or sporting significance is nothing new these days and it may even increase the interest in the surroundings and indeed the history of the public gardens.
The biggest irony is that the opposing political parties are in broad agreement over the development and its benefits.
In the first week here, there were demonstrations from neighbors opposing the development plans.
“Environment groups have deep pockets and can afford to go to court forever,” said Mr. Ysern.
But he remains optimistic that the plans will go through – the Federation faced similar opposition when they wanted to build Court Suzanne Lenglen, and it was the court and the Conseils d’Etat as the final point of appeal who allowed them to build it.
After losing the 2012 Olympic bid to London, the FFT and the City of Paris decided to improve the facilities, and in the past, they have always paid for those improvements themselves – this is the first time they are looking for help from the city.
The plans are to use the facilities as the base for the FFT outside of the tournament, and to also build a new National Training Centre at Porte d’Auteuil, with seven indoor and four outdoor courts.
Roland Garros is one of France’s sporting crown jewels – it was not without some irony that Mr. Ysern rued the fact that Wimbledon’s plans were approved without anywhere near as many hitches as the FFT face now.
No-one can deny that heritage is important, but so too is the march of commercial sporting progress.
As Mr. Ysern said – the plans are spectacular, all they need now is the permission.