Tennis: Memories of Danny the Red's rule at Roland Garros: Bud Collins goes back 25 years to when the French Open tennis championships got caught up in the Paris riots

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The Independent Online
CLIFF RICHEY has commandeered a few taxis in his time, but when he told the driver, 'Take me to Paris,' they both thought it was ridiculous.

'After all, we were in Luxembourg,' laughs Richey, a quarter of a century after the longest, priciest cab ride of his travelling life. 'It cost 200 bucks; which was a heck of a lot of money then. And I was still an amateur. But it was the only way I could see to get there.'.

'There' was the initial French Open, a tournament that almost closed before the gates of Stade Roland Garros were unlocked. Suppose they threw a Championship and nobody came? That was the French in the month of May '68, a diversion within a city wracked by near-revolution. The City of Light was heavy on strife that spring when insurrection was in blossom along with the usual chestnuts, and the perfume of the season came not from Chanel but tear gas cannisters.

But Richey, a determined Texan, did get there, and to the fourth round. His sister, Nancy Richey, catching the last bus in from Brussels, did even better, winning the first of the major titles to be competed for by amateurs and pros.

Tennis players' travails were obviously minor, though, because it was the spring of Danny the Red, the young left-winger who led student riots that tried to break the government's serve with volleys of rocks and rebellious bombast. And it was also the time of Rodney the Redhead, an exiled emperor of France named Laver whose left wing would flap ominously over tennis at the dawn of the open era.

If the cops weren't amnesty-minded about kids who kept trying to bowl them out with paving stones, the tennis community, however, undergoing its own revolution, happily forgave such outlaws as Laver, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzalez, Andres Gimeno, Fred Stolle. As pros they'd been barred from respectable society and the citadels like Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But they got pardons with the coming of opens.

'Of course we wanted to hold the first big open,' said Philippe Chatrier, recently retired head of the French Federation. 'But for a while it looked like we might be closed down - like Paris itself - by demonstrations, unrest and the general strike. No public transport was coming in or out of Paris, or operating in the city. There was no gasoline for sale. Many players couldn't get here at all (five of the 16 seeded men weren't as resourceful as No 13 Richey). But it turned out beautifully anyway.'

'There was wonderful spirit,' Billie Jean King recalled. 'Tremendous crowds - we were told the best since France's glory days of the Four Musketeers before World War II.' The combination of an out-of-work populace and the desire to see the reinstated old champs again spurred crowds to Roland Garros.

'Rosie Casals, Ann Jones and I were anxious to be in on it,' King said. 'Francoise Durr (the defending champion) lived in Paris, so she was already there.' As trail-blazers, the first female pro troupe, 'we didn't want to leave the occasion to the amateurs. But we didn't have a clue on getting there, we were so used to flying.

'Pip Jones, Anne's husband, suggested we fly to Amsterdam and rent a car. There was fog all the way. Scary. We thought we'd be late, but we made it in time. We were warned to stay off the streets, but Rosie and I sneaked around, peeked around corners, saw the kids throwing slabs. It was exciting but frightening, too.'

Laver, who'd been in exile since winning the 1962 title as an amateur, remembers: 'Roy (Emerson) and I poked around. The students were noisy, boisterous. They'd be marching, and there'd be a surge and they'd charge somewhere or be charged by the police. When that started we withdrew.'

Despite Billie Jean's eagerness to uphold the new sisterhood of working women, it was an amateur, Nancy Richey, who came through the turmoil. Beating King and Jones in succession, she became the lone amateur woman to win a major in the open era.

'Until I won I was sorry I was there,' Richey said. 'Everything had come to a screeching halt. It was the Dark Ages again. Garbage was piled high. I changed hotels three times to get nearer Roland Garros. Can you imagine players today putting up with that?

'Except for Billie Jean, Rosie, Ann and Francoise, who'd signed pro contracts, we Americans were instructed not to accept prize money. Opens were so new . . . we didn't know what was what. I got dollars 450 in expense per diem - but I didn't actually get it until a year later.' A far cry from the dollars 260,000 (pounds 171,000) prize for Monica Seles's successor next Sunday.

But the male pros upheld their reputations. Laver, Rosewall, Gimeno and Gonzalez (a few days shy of his 40th birthday) filled the semis. Rosewall, 33, a dozen years after his banishment, beat Laver for the crown and dollars 3,000.

Soon enough Danny the Red faded away. The strike ended, people returned to work. Streets were for autos again instead of ammunition. Rodney the Redhead pulled himself together to win Wimbledon. And Cliff Richey never wanted to see another taxi.