PARIS — After three days of gazing at bicycles in Amsterdam and after an overnight hop to Brussels to sample Belgian chocolates and waffles, we arrived at the City of Light.
Yes, would you believe here in Europe now, at 9:40 at night… it’s still bright. The sun arises early before 6 and it doesn’t set until nearly 10 p.m. Which means, for this city with the illuminated Eiffel Tower, you’ll have endless time to walk the gardens, snap photos of the Louvre and crave on crepes and croissants.
The first stop for this tennis-crazy writer? Where else: Roland-Garros.
Here in Paris, they don’t call their tennis tournament “French Open.” That would make it too obvious. Roland Garros is the name of a World War I fighter pilot (not of a tennis legend). It is also the name of the Parisian tennis garden where, for two weeks, rackets will pulverize balls and rubber shoes will slide on sand.
My wife Jasmin, our 16-year-old daughter Jana and I are staying near the Opera district. On Monday morning at 9:25, I walked to the Metro station in Grands Boulevards and descended the flight of stairs. A speedy 25 minutes later, I emerged from Michel Ange Molitor.
As soon as I alighted from the Metro station, I knew I was in the correct place. A “STADE ROLAND GARROS” signage pointed the way. On the asphalted sidewalk, there was a spray-painted sign that read, “1100 meters away.”
Walking briskly (I didn’t want to look overly-excited by sprinting), I reached the gate alongside hordes of other tennis fanatics.
This is my second time inside Roland-Garros. But the first one was different: Back in 2001 with the Mendez family of my wife, we entered the empty complex in Sept. and toured staring at empty green seats and no one firing backhands on the 20 courts.
Last Monday was different. It was a holiday in France and thousands congregated inside (I couldn’t even buy tickets for Jasmin and Jana).
Roland-Garros is special because, like many landmarks that stand here like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Versailles Palace, it is rich in history. Founded in 1891, it began as a tennis event limited only to male members of French clubs. Six years later, women competed in their own category. It wasn’t until 1925 when international netters were welcome.
I attempted to soak in all of this history two days ago. Before watching any balls being hit from right to left, I walked the hallowed grounds. Sculptures of tennis legends adorn the gardens. A museum houses the memories and moments. Names like Henri Cochet and Jean Borotra are sprinkled around walls.
Rene Lacoste, world famous for his clothing brand, is a three-time French Open champion. During his playing days, he was nicknamed the “Crocodile” for his ferocity on-court; thus, the logo of Lacoste.
Everyone here, naturally, wears Lacoste. All the umpires wear blue coats or T-shirts with the the crocodile logo. Same with the officials and linesman, in honor of their French star.
I got to see plenty of boxing last Monday. Yes, like Manny’s sport, tennis is one on one. (More challenging than boxing: no coach is allowed to converse with you.)
Fabio Fognini was a magnet for spectators in Court 2. He played Tatsumi Ito. For those who went to Plantation Bay in 2011 for the Davis Cup tie when we played Japan, you’ll remember the tall Japanese. He promptly lost to Fognini.
Soon after, Jasmin asked me on Viber: How are you doing? My reply: “I’m in tennis Disneyland.”
Two youngsters impressed me the most. One was Dominic Thiem. Only 21, the Austrian smothers that serve and forehand. Another kid to watch is Borna Coric, the former No.1 junior, who defeated Sam Querrey. That first-set tiebreaker was a thrill. Coric, only 18, is the youngest player in the Top 100 (he’s 46).
At Court Suzanne Lenglen, it was Gael Monfils who fueled much applause. He’s French and he reminds me of Yannick Noah. Remember the 6-foot-4 serve-and-volleyer (who’s the dad of the Chicago Bulls star, Joakim)? He won Roland-Garros in 1983 — the last Frenchman to win the men’s singles crown.