Arena: Musketeer memories to the fore: 6. Roland Garros: Chris Bowers savours the special atmosphere of the home of a golden age as the French Open beckons

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LOGIC ought to decree that a stadium built of uniform grey concrete in straight lines and offering spectators virtually no cover from the elements would not be thought of as a great arena with romantic connotations. Logic ought also to decree that no one would consider it romantic to sit at a pavement cafe, breathing in traffic fumes while drinking unpalatable coffee served by a surly waiter, yet thousands of people pay good money to travel to Paris to do just that.

There should not be anything special about the Stade Roland Garros, but there is. The place is as rich with the history of triumphs and disasters as its contrasting cousin Wimbledon.

Perhaps the romance of Roland Garros stems from its foundation in the golden age of French tennis. The French Championships, which started in 1881, had several homes until the late 1920s. By then, the interest generated by Suzanne Lenglen - probably the world's most graceful player ever and recognised as the best of her era - and the cream of the French men known as the Four Musketeers was creating the need for a new home for the tournament. When France drew the United States in the challenge round of the 1928 Davis Cup, the Parisians' clamour to see the Musketeers up against America's hero Bill Tilden pushed the city authorities and the promoters to build a new stadium.

The city donated 15 acres of land, on the western edge of Paris near the Porte d'Auteuil, with a condition that it bear the name of Roland Garros, an aviator who fell five weeks before the First World War armistice and was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre (the fact that he was much keener on rugby than tennis has been conveniently ignored). The stadium was ready for the championships of 1928, but the first match on centre court featured Mme Lafaurie against Miss Bennett in a France v Britain friendly which the British won 8-4.

These days the Four Musketeers - Jean Borotra, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon (the former two still alive) - are commemorated with a circular patio between centre court and the amphitheatre- shaped Court One. A statue of each man stands at the four points of the compass, and with a fountain in the middle and scoreboards and television screens on the outside of the showcourts, it is a place spectators are drawn to for a break from the action. The Davis Cup itself was paraded there during the 1992 championships after the French won it in emotional style in November 1991.

Lenglen never played at Roland Garros (rows with officialdom drove her out of tennis before it was built), but the French men dominated the early years. The Australian Jack Crawford was the first non-Frenchman to win the singles, in 1933, a triumph which signalled the end of home dominance. Only two Frenchmen have won the title since: Marcel Bernard, a surprise winner in 1946, and the dreadlocked Yannick Noah, giving the stadium its most ecstatic moment when he won in 1983. Only three Frenchwomen have won the title: Simone Mathieu in 1938 and 1939, Nel Adamson-Landry in 1948 and Francoise Durr, who won the last amateur event in 1967.

When tennis went 'open' in 1968, Roland Garros hosted the first Grand Slam event as the championships became the French Open. That year Ken Rosewall beat Rod Laver in the men's final watched by a capacity crowd despite a general strike at the peak of student unrest, while Nancy Richey beat one of six British women to have won in Paris, Ann Jones (the others were Margaret Scriven in 1933 and 1934, Angela Mortimer in 1955, Shirley Bloomer in 1957, Christine Truman in 1959, and Sue Barker in 1976; Jones won as Ann Haydon in 1961).

These days, the increased power generated by modern tennis racquets makes the slow clay of Roland Garros the most interesting of the four surfaces on which the Grand Slam tournaments are contested (though the Parisian clay is a shade faster than at many other European clay-court tournaments). This made for an outstanding four-hour men's final last year, in which Sergi Bruguera foiled Jim Courier's attempt to win a third consecutive French title. Roland Garros has also played host to arguably the three best women's Grand Slam finals of the last 10 years: Evert beating Navratilova in 1985, Sanchez overcoming Graf in 1989 and Seles beating Graf in 1992.

This year Roland Garros has a new showcourt. Called Court A, it is a 10,000-seater partially sunken arena, if anything more striking than the 16,500-seater centre court, with two dramatic grey stone curves along either side and black horizontal high-tech commentary gantries at each end. As a more intimate setting, it could generate a better atmosphere than centre court or the 3,500-seater Court One. The court forms part of a major extension opened last Monday by the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, a year later than planned after a legal wrangle had threatened to stop building work.

The flags are out for tomorrow's start of the 1994 French Open, and with them comes the Roland Garros magic. It is a quality less easy to grasp than the garden-party aura of Wimbledon, though no less real. It is perhaps just a component of that illogical but romantic phenomenon known as 'Paris in the spring'.

(Photograph omitted)

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