Visiting Roland Garros for the 2016 French Open

If there’s any job in the world I could have besides my own, it would be screenwriter. If not that, then absolutely a professional tennis player. As a kid I was actually quite light-footed on the court, and a solid doubles player with a powerful serve. Injuries kept me out of tennis for nearly two full seasons, and when I picked up a racket again, I was so embarrassed by my performance that I didn’t play for years. If I regret anything in life, it’s completely abandoning a game that meant so much to me. Recently, I’ve found my way back in, though it’s an expensive hobby to pursue in New York City! (And if anyone has any tips on where to play in Queens, send them my way!)

When I planned my trip to France for Euro Cup this year, I realized the tickets I had would coincide near perfectly with the culmination of the French Open, one of tennis’ four majors, and the only one on clay, my personal favorite surface. Thanks to a schedule that allows for flexibility and remote work, I decided the stars were aligning for me to head to Roland Garros to make a childhood dream come true.

Ordering tickets to the tourney was a bit of a hassle, mostly because I wanted to be 100% certain I’d have tickets to the matches, so I purchased them the day they went on sale. This involved a 4:50AM wakeup, and over an hour of waiting in a virtual “line” to have a chance to purchase. In the end, I had secured tickets to both days of the quarterfinals (8 players left in each draw, preceding the semifinals, and then the finals), the first on Suzanne Lenglen, and the second on Philippe Chatrier (the main stage).

Unfortunately, the lead-up to the tournament, and early rounds, proved to me that the tennis gods had no interest in putting on a world class tournament for me. Even before the tournament began, top players on both sides, including Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniaki, had withdrawn, followed by early exits from top players like Angelique Kerber, Rafael Nadal, and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. To cap it off, Paris was under siege by the weather, and Monday May 30, the day before I was due to attend, was a total wash out, the second in the history of Roland Garros.

It was in this context that I arrived at Roland Garros on May 31.

The complex is located in the southwest of Paris, accessible via Metro lines 9 and 10, in the Bois de Boulogne inside the XVI Arr.

What’s most shocking about Roland Garros is how utterly tiny the venue feels, and, in fact, is. Coming from New York City, and the US National Tennis Center, I perhaps had outsize expectations, but Roland Garros is just…tiny. Nothing about the experience conveys the feeling of being at a major championship. 

The venue itself is approximately laid out in an L-shape, with a long boulevard connecting the two main courts. Peppered around are shops and food options, with a few sponsorship activations and activities. The food options are incredibly limited, and I recommend anyone who go prepare a lunch instead, as you are allowed to bring food inside. Think of this as an even blander approach to American stadium food, with burgers, hot dogs, and cold baguette sandwiches on the menu.

Well thank GOODNESS they serve that French ice cream staple, Häagen-Dazs!

Well thank GOODNESS they serve that French ice cream staple, Häagen-Dazs!

Day 1 - May 31

There’s little good I can write about from my first day at Roland Garros. In the wake of Monday’s rain-out, the tournament had a lot on its plate for Tuesday. With matches due to being at 11AM, I arrived at 10, so as to explore the grounds (though, as noted, there isn’t much to see!). 

An unedited photo to show you just how gray the day was.

An unedited photo to show you just how gray the day was.

Instead, I spent several hours sitting in my seat, enjoy a washing from Mother Nature. Rain was persistent throughout the day, and led to several pushbacks in start time. All-in-all, I would see less than two hours of tennis, though it did include an impressive comeback from Tsvetana Pironkova against #2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, after being down a set and three games. 

How I spent much of my first day at Roland Garros.

How I spent much of my first day at Roland Garros.

Most upsetting was the actions of tournament management which, I’m convinced, organized the day’s events to cut down on their own financial losses. If less than an hour of tennis is played, fans receive a 100% refund. If less than two hours, 50%. How much tennis was played? Two hours and one minute. Just enough to avoid further financial loss. The sequence of play stoppage is what has me convinced this was their underlying motivation, as the only match that remained on-court when the two hour mark hit was Novak Djokovic’s on Philippe Chatrier. Preceding this, all other matches had been pulled, because the conditions were unfavorable. Either management had its own agenda, or there is a unique weather pattern that exists only in-and-around court Philippe Chatrier. Similar to the unique set of physical properties that exist in-and-around a certain stove in the 1992 classic My Cousin Vinny.

Though I didn't see much action, here are a few shots from the day, which also included a few moments of action between Thomas Berdych and David Ferrer.

Day 2 - June 1 - Quarterfinals

With a near complete loss of play the day before, today’s schedule of play saw major matches going on not only on the main courts, but also outer ones as well, unique for a tournament at this stage. What did this mean for me? Instead of just two matches, I’d see four, and they would all be quite significant. 

Being on Court Philippe-Chatrier means knowing you’ll see some of the biggest names, and today did not disappoint. My lineup featured Serena Williams (W), Novak Djokovic (W), former US Open winner Samantha Stosur (W), and, most excitingly, the Andy Murray-Richard Gasquet match, with Gasquet as the sole remaining Frenchman in the tournament. The match, the most highly anticipated of the day, had a fierce pair of sets to open, with Murray and Gasquet nabbing one each. Unfortunately, Gasquet couldn’t keep up his performance, and Murray plowed through him in sets 3 and 4, silencing the French crowd.

Unfortunately, the day’s weather showed no improvement, and it was still a cold, rainy, gray environment. Not what you’re hoping for in Paris in mid-May!

Planning to visit Roland Garros? While it may sounds like I didn’t enjoy my experience, I highly recommend it for any fan of tennis, especially clay courts. Here are my tips:

  • Bring your own food! If you envisioned tennis with wine and cheese, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. The options are truly disappointing at the stadium, and overpriced. Stop by a grocery store or boulangerie before you head to Roland Garros and grab something fresh, and cheaper, instead.
  • Dress in layers. Since the major stadiums are open air, and weather in Paris in May can be a bit unpredictable, you’ll want to be ready for anything. On Day 2 I found myself shedding and redressing several times, as the temperature kept swinging.
  • Just go once. In the grand scheme of things, as much as I love tennis, one day would have done the trick, instead of spending nearly 200 euros to go twice. I’d rather have had the extra day to watch from a cafe, or do some extra sight-seeing. My feeling may be due, in part, to the fact that I regularly see top-flight tennis at the US Open, but with such a small venue, Day 2 just felt like deja vu to me.
  • Don’t discount Lenglen! Court Suzanne Lenglen may be the second tier stadium at Roland Garros, but for the same price as an upper bowl seat at Philippe-Chartrier, you can sit significantly closer. Even in the second mezzanine, I felt like I was practically sitting on-court when the little bit of tennis I saw there was played.

What about you? Have you been to The French Open? What was your experience like?