PARIS: After almost two decades of growing pains, Roland Garros, the historic but claustrophobic home of the French Open, can finally breathe easy — thanks to the ‘greenhouse effect’.
Players and fans who make the annual pilgrimage to the clay court showpiece, which gets underway on Sunday, will notice radical changes this year as the tournament plays catch-up with its Grand Slam big brothers at Wimbledon and the US and Australian Opens.
Where those three have expanded effortlessly, embracing 21st century technology with modern stadia and retractable roofs, Roland Garros planners have spent their time in legal wrangles, fighting opposition to plans to extend from their well-heeled and powerful neighbours in one of Paris’s plushest suburbs.
Roland Garros was “in danger of asphyxiation”, said former French Tennis Federation president Christian Bimes in 2007.
That was when earlier plans were dropped after Paris lost out to London in its bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Always at the heart of court battles — and consequently the cause of the delays to expansion dreams first hatched in 2002 — were a batch of humble greenhouses.
Built in the 19th century, the greenhouses in the adjacent Autueil gardens are home to rare flora and fauna.
The Serres d’Autueil, said campaigners, would be in peril from plans to build a 5,000-seater stadium next to them.
The federation, who even once pondered abandoning Roland Garros in favour of a new site in the suburbs, eventually triumphed in their court tussles.
Greenhouses have been renovated and renewed and work on the new semi-submerged arena is well underway and will be operational for the 2019 French Open.
It will be called the Simonne-Mathieu stadium in honour of a former national women’s champion and French resistance fighter of the Second World War.
“It is the symbol of a new Roland Garros, it will allow the tournament to breathe,” said Gilles Jourdan, who is in charge of the project.
Another new stadium — Court 18 which will, bizarrely be renamed Court 14 for next year — is already finished and is being used for the 2018 tournament.
Matches in this week’s qualifying competition are being played on the arena tucked away in the western corner of the complex.
Court 18 can accommodate 2,200 people and with Court One —affectionately dubbed ‘The Bullring’ — set to be demolished to open up public spaces even more, it will be one of the event’s showcase arenas.
Two other courts, right in the shadow of the centre-piece 15,000-capacity Philippe Chatrier Court will also be new additions.
Court Seven can hold 1,500 fans and Court Nine, 500.
Demolished already, however, is the popular art-deco Court Two.
“It was time for the complex to have a fresh look. It was starting to get a little outdated,” 24-year-old Jordan Sacksick, a spectator watching qualifying this week, told AFP.
“The whole place is more airy.”