Court One – Roland Garros: An appreciation
It was the second largest court for spectators at the French Open for many years until Court Suzanne Lenglen moved it to the third position in the 90’s. It’s often called the Bull Ring by tennis fans, connoisseurs and players. It’s a unique court, a circular stadium with close quarter seating and the names of all of the French Open champions ringing the outside of it. It is also my favorite tennis court in all of the world.
Court One makes a player feel like they are hitting the ball bigger than normal, due to its unique acoustics. For an outdoor court it sounds unusually like an indoor court, with the ball reverberating loudly to the players ears. For as large as the playing surface is on the Roland Garros Center Court, now called Court Philippe Chatrier, Court One’s playing surface is intimate and enclosed with the fans sitting almost on top of you. If you’re a fan there’s not a bad seat in the house.
I played a lot of matches on Court One and a few of them really stand out. The first one, a 3rd round match vs Andre Agassi in 1989, lasted two days due to a late start on day one. I was up 2 sets to 1 and on the brink of my first 2nd week appearance in a major when play was halted. We came back the next day and I won the 4th set to take the match. I am pretty sure Andre was ready to get out of there and let me win the 4th but all I cared about was getting through it, which I did. It was the biggest win of my career at that point (I was 18 years old) and it really put me on the tennis map. I remember getting a couple of calls in my hotel room that night from well known US tennis writers to comment on the match and Andre, who was already a superstar the media loved and hated.
With the win over Andre I had advanced to play Andrei Chesnokov, a patient and relentless Russian, in the round of 16 the next day and was again scheduled on Court One. I woke up energized and excited for my first experience of 2nd week tennis at a major. I came out on a hot streak and won the first two sets 6-2 and 6-3 against Andrei and had the match well in control, or so I thought. My mind started drifting ahead to the quarterfinals where the great Mats Wilander would be waiting. What a thrill that would be to play the 3-time French champion on Center Court! Those thoughts may have clouded my head a bit because Andrei clawed his way back into the 3rd set and toughed me out in a tiebreak to extend the match into what he wanted, a physical dogfight. He quickly won the 4th set 6-2 and we went into the 5th with momentum on his side and fatigue on mine. I fought hard but lost a tough 7-5 set in the 5th to see my quarterfinal dreams evaporate. I was disappointed but I had become a contender on Court One that week and had a new belief that I could actually do something in a major.
My other most memorable match on Court One was in 1991 in the 3rd round vs Magnus Larsson, a tough Swede with a huge serve and forehand. I was the #9 seed that year, having had a very good start to the year in which I broke into the top 10 for the first time. I came out onto Court One on a cold day to play Magnus, who was dangerous. I won the first set and then things got tricky. He got the better of me in the next two sets to take a 2 sets to 1 lead. I was edgy because I was supposed to be making my breakthrough now, at the age of 20, and I had played well at the French…I was on the short list of favorites for the title but I also knew I could lose to Magnus. I was already down a break of serve in the 4th set and serving at 15-40 which meant I was basically gone if he broke me again. A baby cried out, just as I was about to serve, and I said something in the general direction of the child along the lines of “Yeah, I know exactly how you feel, kid”. The crowd laughed and somehow it loosened me up. At the same time Magnus seemed to sense he was close to the finish line and he tightened. With those dynamics in play, I managed to hold serve and fight my way back into the match. I ended up beating Magnus 6-2 in the 5th and later went on to win the title that year. Court One had owed me one from the match I should have won but lost against Chesnokov and we were now officially even as there was no way I should have escaped against Larsson.
I hear that Court One will be torn down in a few years as they expand the grounds and make room for more spectators at Roland Garros. Time waits for no one and the show must go on. I get that. I applaud the tournament organizers foresight to make the tournament more fan friendly. But let the record show that I will personally miss Court One and the memories I keep from those high and low moments spent in that small stadium. I never lifted a trophy on that court but it will remain my favorite tennis court in the world long after it is gone.