Ah, Paris in late spring! Les fleurs in bloom, leaves rustling in the light breeze, café tables spilling onto sidewalks. The sound of grunts, cheers, boos and balls thwacked to and fro in the rarefied air of the 16th Arrondissement. Which can mean only one thing for sports fans: the French Open tennis tournament is upon us.
“The French,” held from May 23 to June 6, joins the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open as one of the four most prestigious annual tennis events, called grand slams.
Roland Garros, as it’s officially known, is the prettiest (Paris!) and most intimate of the four. Degas might’ve swooned over the impressionistic setting—lithe athletes gliding about like dancers on red clay courts, against the leafy backdrop of the Bois de Boulogne. (Sadly, that will change soon: plans for a larger stadium at a new location are being discussed.)
Tickets for the main event (starting at 21 euros) went on sale in February and disappeared faster than it takes to finish a café crème. But there are still ways to get in.
With daylight lasting well past 9 p.m., the evening visitor’s pass is a bargain at 10 euros. Based on the number of seats vacated by fans departing throughout the day, these passes are issued for entry after 5 p.m. to any remaining matches. A qualifying tournament starting May 18 features lower-ranked players fighting for several slots in the main draws (multiday tickets start at 19 euros). If you’re lucky, you might spot some top players who’ve arrived early to practice on the outside courts.
The Benny Berthet charity exhibition, scheduled for May 22 (tickets are 19 euros), features a handful of stars; Rafael Nadal played last year. Also, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe join other veterans for legends doubles from June 2 to June 5 (tickets are 15 euros).
This year Justine Henin, a three-time champion who recently returned from a brief retirement, brings her stylish game back to Paris but will have to contend with No. 1 Serena Williams.
On the men’s side, three-time champ Nadal will try to reclaim the crown from No. 1 Roger Federer, last year’s winner and possibly the best ever to swing a racket.
The slow, slippery clay surface flummoxes even the greatest, many of whom have left Paris annually sans La Coupe des Mousquetaires—the trophy, named for the “Four Musketeers,” French tennis legends of the 1920s and ’30s including René Lacoste, who inspired the crocodile-logo polo.
The clay surface—which slows down the ball—rewards mind-numbing patience. Men’s matches can last five hours, women’s three. For players, it also rewards the kind of artistry the French adore, mirroring their taste in art or fashion: colorful, flamboyant, high risk. France’s well-organized tennis federation produces elegant players like so many bottles of Bordeaux.
Which brings us to the food here. Three restaurants satisfy picky Parisians, and even a 4.50-euro sandwich from one of the snack stands is divine. After snacking, peruse the on-site boutiques selling everything from electric-blue sneakers to Lacoste polos.
Take metro line No. 10 to the Porte d’Auteuil stop to reach Roland Garros (2, ave Gordon-Bennett, in the 16th). For more information, visit the Roland Garros website.