By Roger Allnutt, Travel Writer
PARIS, FRANCE — As all tennis aficionados and most other sports enthusiasts would know the four Grand Slam tennis championships are played each year, in order, at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Stade Roland Garros in Paris, Wimbledon in London and finally at Flushing Meadow in New York. Three tennis centres are named after their location whilst the French Open’s location is named after a man Roland Garros.
Who was Roland Garros? His story is intriguing, colourful and tragic.
Roland Garros was born Eugene Adrien Roland Georges Garros on 6 October 1888 in Saint-Denis, the capital and main city of the small French island of Reunion (administered in the same way as departments in mainland France since 1946) in the south west Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.
He studied mainly in France but around his 21st birthday he became involved in flying in the early days of the development of flying machines. In September 1911 he set a new world altitude record of 5,610m flying high above the beach at Houlgate, a seaside town on the Normandy coast near Caen. In 1913 he became famous in France for making the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean Sea from Frejus in the south of France to Bizerte in Tunisia.
The following year he joined the French Army at the outbreak of World War I. It is said that he drove his airplane into a German Zeppelin dirigible above the German frontier on 3 August 1914 destroying the aircraft and killing both pilots in what was considered to be the first air battle in world history.
As a fighter pilot Roland Garros is credited with a number of ‘kills’. After crashing his plane in April 1915 he spent nearly three years in a POW camp before escaping, and after rejoining the French Army, was shot down and killed on 5 October 1918, one day before his 30th birthday and only a month or so before the end of the war.
While studying in Paris he was a keen tennis player, and the centre where he played was developed in 1928 to host France’s first defence of the Davis Cup. The facility was named after him, the Stade de Roland Garros. The French Open is officially called Les internationaux de France de Roland-Garros (the “French Internationals of Roland Garros”).
Unfortunately the site of Roland Garros limits the best presentation of the French Open. The two main show courts Philippe Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen have a large spectator capacity but unlike Melbourne Park have no roof cover. The other courts are very cramped and when I visited this led to long queues trying to get a seat for matches. There is some adjacent public parkland but the local community has long resisted any attempt for Roland Garros to expand.
The name Roland Garros lives on in other ways. The French car maker Peugeot has had a number of models carrying his name. The international airport in Reunion is named the Roland Garros Airport, and the place he landed in Bizerte in Tunisia after crossing the Mediterranean is Place Roland Garros. The esplanade along the beach at Houlgate is called Promenade Roland Garros. There is a statue of him in Reunion.
During the French Open a huge tennis ball emblazoned with the name Roland Garros is suspended between the pylons of the Eiffel Tower.