If you want to watch tennis at Roland Garros, you had to be patient this week. And not just when thirteen-time winner Rafael Nadal or the new tennis sensation Carlos Alcaraz plays. Take job eight, a side job with a double of the Dutch Botic van de Zandschulp and Tallon groenpoor against compatriot Wesley Koolhof and his partner? A large row, trimmed with ribbons. Lane 13 then, where Arantxa Rus of world number 16 loses Elena Rybakina? Anyone who spontaneously arrives to watch the third set has no place in the cramped stands. It’s so crowded that you can’t even see the ball through the people.
Roland Garros is post-corona like a visit to the Efteling. If you want to see an attraction, in this case top athletes who can hit a ball at more than two hundred kilometers per hour, and that also inside the lines, you will have to wait. If you decide to go to the next attraction, it will take a lot of time.
“Grand slams have gotten bigger and bigger compared to regular tournaments on the tour. Today, the grand slams are therefore really the main currency – the four cornerstones of the tennis tour. They are also so lucrative,” says Ben Rothenberg (35). He wrote for The New York Times for years and is now working on a book about Noami Osaka.
Roland Garros is the pinnacle of the clay-court season, the culmination of weeks of tournaments in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, all of which lead to one goal: to crown a new clay king in Paris. Regular tournaments seem to mainly serve as preparation for a grand slam tournament. The Australian swing for the Australian Open, the grass tournaments for Wimbledon, the American hard court season for the US Open: it’s all about the slams. Then there is nothing for a while, and then there are the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup country tournaments, the ATP and WTA finals, and then the regular tournaments.
“Everyone’s talking about grand slam wins and the GOAT – ‘Greatest of all time’ these days,” said Rothenberg, who as journalist Roger Federer saw Nadal and Novak Djokovic win one slam after another. “That was not the case in the 1990s. Back then, Steffi Graf (22 grand slams) didn’t talk about how many slams she had won, it was more about the total number of tournament wins. If someone wins a smaller tournament now, it doesn’t matter,” Rothenberg said.
The difference in prize money alone between the slams and the regular ATP and WTA tournaments is huge. Whoever lost in the first round in Paris this week earned 62,000 euros. Last month, Van de Zandschulp reached the final of the ATP tournament in Munich. He was able to take home 47,430 euros.
Before the pandemic, the geentire tennis industry an estimated 2.3 billion dollars (2.15 billion euros). “Sixty percent of the entire tennis economy” comes on account of the four grand slams, according to ATP president Andrea Gaudenzi. The four grand slam tournaments have deep pockets.
Renovation of 150 million euros
Roland Garros wants to build and expand even more stadiums in Bois de Boulogne in the west of Paris, but many residents have been against this for years. So the cramped tournament makes the most of the space it has. The Court Philippe-Chatrier was almost completely demolished and rebuilt in 2019. The renovation cost about 150 million euros. The gravel temple finally got a roof and a light installation, allowing for evening sessions. Parisians are excited about that addition to the ‘French Open’. This week the center court was packed with singing and waving fans every day around eleven o’clock in the evening.
Also relatively new to Bois de Boulogne is the elegant Court Simonne-Mathieu, a stadium with a capacity of five thousand spectators, set in the middle of greenery. The tournament has grown from 9.6 hectares to 11.1 hectares in recent years, despite lawsuits from local residents and other opponents.
„When Charles Baudelaire [een Franse dichter] once wrote that the face of a city changes faster than the heart of a person, he must have meant Roland Garros,” says American writer Michael Mewshaw (79). He has seen the tournament makeover ten times since he first entered it in 1977. “The tournament has done a great job promoting their brand,” said Mewshaw, who emphasizes that the sale of the television rights has fueled strong growth in all four grand slams – a term coined by a journalist in 1933. Roland Garros was broadcast by the BBC from 1981. Like the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, the tournament was able to grow independently into a strong brand; grand slams are not part of the ATP tour, but have a separate status within the international tennis federation ITF.
Roland Garros is currently broadcast in 223 countries. The television money, the live scoring data and the ticket sales: it generates a lot of money. The merchandise is also hitting hard. The white hat with Roland Garros logo, which is worn by many men, costs 58 euros in La Boutique. The white hat matches the clothing style of the French women, who often walk through the park in light summer dresses in pastel shades. You get dirty from clay tennis, but not from parading on the imaginary catwalk between Philippe-Chatrier and Simonne-Mathieu.
Yet it is not all splendor in Paris. Roland Garros has caused a lot of irritation with the unilateral decision to move the tournament to autumn during the first corona lockdown in 2020. As if the tournament lived in its own reality. Nevertheless, the French held their ground and turned the tennis calendar upside down.
Spectators find their way around the tennis park in Bois de Boulogne. Photo Thibault Camus / AP
Irritation to the players
Wimbledon also showed a quirky face last month, when it was the only tournament to decide to ban (Belarus) Russian tennis players this summer. Something that many players are now outraged about. The decision of the Australian Open last year for tennis players who had been on a plane with someone with a corona infection could also count on little understanding. The measures of the grand slams are increasingly irritating the players, who are faced with a fait accompli each time. The grand slams are getting too powerful.
“Today you have the seven kingdoms in tennis. The ATP, the WTA, the ITF and the four grand slams have the power,” Rothenberg said. “The grand slams would like to keep this structure as it is now.”
Nadal told this week in Paris that it is always the same song. According to the Spaniard, the grand slam tournaments are much better organized than the tennis players. “Every individual player on the tour has a different opinion and therefore we will never achieve what we can achieve if we did it together.” Number 1 in the world Novak Djokovic tried to organize a counterforce with his own players’ organization: the PTPA, the Professional Tennis Players Association, but that attempt has not been very successful.
Menshaw thinks that not the big tournaments, but the players remain in charge. “I understand what Rafa is saying. That players are not well organized and tournaments are, was already the case forty years ago. Tennis remains an individual sport. But in the end it goes the way the top players want. I have seen players wanting to be paid for an interview. They mainly want money. And if they don’t get that, they’ll go on strike tomorrow. Then there is no tennis tournament at all.”
The players themselves spend a lot of hours on the clay this week. When the young Spanish tennis sensation Carlos Alcaraz survives a match point on the Court Simonne-Mathieu on Wednesday evening, and after 4 hours and 34 minutes beats his left-handed compatriot Albert Ramos-Vinolas, after falling behind several times, the small stadium explodes.
The noise of the best match of the first week of the tournament drowns out the entire Bois de Boulogne. Gravel tennis can be brutal and endless, with constantly changing odds. It’s like a roller coaster. The Roland Garros product is very strong. Certainly as long as everyone keeps counting the grand slams of Nadal or Djokovic. And if Alcaraz is going to win slams, his counter starts to run too.
Third round Nadal beats Van de Zandschulp
Rafael Nadal defeated Botic van de Zandschulp in the third round of Roland Garros on Friday. The Spaniard, placed fifth in Paris, was too strong for the 26th seeded Dutchman in three sets: 6-3, 6-2 and 6-4.
Van de Zandschulp (26) had survived two rounds for the first time at Roland Garros. He broke Nadal’s serve in the first game. But after losing his serve himself in the third game, it was quickly over. Nadal(35) struck at the first set point.
In the other sets, Van de Zandschulp also had little to say against Nadal. He won a match at Roland Garros for the 108th time. There are three defeats.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 28, 2022