On The Clay

By: Teddy Bishop

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

With the French Open looming on the horizon tennis eyes are focusing on the red-clay courts of Roland Garros.

The very first French Open was held in 1891, but was aptly called the French Championships, since only men who were citizens of France were allowed to compete. The champion is listed as H. Briggs.

The French Championships didn’t include women until 1897. Four Frenchwomen competed, with Adine Masson winning the title. Masson went on to win a total of five French Championships.

In 1925, the tournament became international and was designated a Grand Slam event.  Rene Lacoste of France won the men’s title, defeating fellow countryman Jean Borotra. Frenchwoman Susanne Lenglen defeated Britain’s Kathleen McKane to win the ladies’ title.

In 1928, a new tennis complex was built in Paris, and the president of the complex insisted that it be named Roland Garros Stadium, after a World War I hero, even though Garros never played professional tennis.

So—who was Roland Garros? Garros was an ‘ace’ French fighter pilot that came up with safer propeller blades that allowed for forward firing of machine guns.

There is some discrepancy as to how many enemy planes he actually shot down, but five downed planes would have classified him as an ‘ace.’ (Aerial warfare was something new. Remember, WWI started barely a decade after the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk.)

In 1915, Garros’ plane developed engine trouble during an airfight, and he made an emergency landing in German territory.

He was quickly captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. When he escaped some three years later, the war was winding down, but he resumed his role as a fighter pilot.

Unfortunately, a month before the war ended, Garros was killed when his plane was shot down. He was twenty-nine.

Enough about Roland Garros, the fighter pilot. Let’s talk about Roland Garros, home of the French Open Grand Slam tennis tournament.

The winningest player ever at Roland Garros is Rafael Nadal. Fourteen (the all-time record) of Nadal’s 22 Grand Slam titles have come at Roland Garros. Despite some recent injuries, the Spaniard is expected to go for number fifteen.

Bjorn Borg of Sweden won the French six times. Novak Djokovic, the GOAT with 24 Grand Slam championships, has only won three titles at Roland Garros (including 2023).

Switzerland’s Roger Federer, with 20 Slam titles, had only one championship at the French Open.

On the women’s side, American Chris Evert has the most French Open titles with seven, the first one in 1974, the last one in 1986.

German Steffi Graf won the title six times, as did Suzanne Lenglen, but only two of Lenglen’s wins came after the tournament became international.  Serena Williams, arguably the greatest woman tennis player of all time with 23 Grand Slam titles, won the French only three times.

The first American woman to win the French Open was Helen Wills Moody in 1928, her first of four. The first American man was Don Budge in 1938. He actually won all four Grand Slam titles (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) that year, but 1938 was his only French Open victory.

Prize money for 2024 will be the highest ever, with both the men’s and ladies’ champion earning $2,567,051. Runners-up will receive $1,283,525. First-round losers will get $78,081. All prize money will be paid in Euros, of course.

The French Open begins Sunday, May 26th, and culminates with the Ladies’ Championship on Saturday, June 8th , and the Men’s Championship on Sunday, June 9th.

On to Roland Garros!