The densest portion of the professional tennis season has come to an end last week on the grass courts of Wimbledon. The European clay and grass court season, featuring two Majors and a plethora of Masters 1000 and Premier tour events in men and women, can overwhelm even the most insatiable tennis fan. This article takes a closer look at the contrast between the fans of the two Majors, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, through a few in-person dialogues that I had with some fans in both locations. It was interesting to notice certain traits that were unique to each Major with regards to their fans. Especially, the striking attachment to nostalgia and ambience manifested by Roland Garros fans, and the remarkable appreciation of tradition and the sport itself among Wimbledon fans impressed me tremendously.
For French fans, Roland Garros is not just about watching quality tennis. They live and breathe all that comprises the makeup of the grounds and the atmosphere of the tournament. They also show no reluctance in saying that the results of the French tennis players matter, a lot! Although I talked a large number of fans here and there, I selected a few that may describe the best the approach of the fans. Catherine (pictured below), who is married and a mother of a wonderful boy named Clément, immediately noted that the pleasure of attending Roland Garros was something that she tasted for the first time as a youngster in the 1970s, one that she never get tired of experiencing again and again since then.
Christian, a mild-mannered man in his 50s, sporting a hat and a backpack, has been coming to Roland Garros every year for a decade. This year, his daugther Aurélie, a university student, decided to join him for the first time. They were accompanied by Alain who is a “Roland Garros nut” in the true sense of the expression (see picture below).
Both Christian and Alain expressed how addictive it was to come to Roland Garros every year and watch world-class tennis. Aurélie let it be known that, despite her first time, she felt the ‘virus’ of Roland Garros invade her as well. Then, there was also Ombeline, a high-school teacher in Paris, who confessed that she could not think of life without attending Roland Garros every year!
Most French fans take their countrymen and women seriously and will support them before any other player. It was no exception with this group of fans. I still wanted to put them on the spot and hear them admit it! So I first asked straight forward if they are coming to Roland Garros to watch their compatriots play or simply to watch some good tennis. While Alain and Ombeline flat out said that they would first like to see the French win, the other four said they wanted to see good tennis without neglecting to add that they are also there to support their compatriots. As I suspected, the question did not put them enough on the spot, so I decided to push further with more specific questions: if two top 10 players took the court at the same time as a match between Gasquet, Tsonga, or Simon and a player ranked around no. 100 in the world, which would they watch? Alain and Ombeline once again preferred to watch the French player over a top-ten match-up. Catherine said if one of the top 10 players were Federer or Nadal, she would prefer to see them, but if it was Djokovic playing she would rather see the French player’s match. I did not feel the need to ask her feelings about the current number 1 player in the world from Serbia! The father-duo combo of Christian and Aurélie said the top 10 match-up without hesitation.
My next question was even more precise. I talked to these people in the middle of the first week, so there was still a chance to have a Djokovic vs. Federer semi-final on one side of the men’s draw, and a Nadal vs. Gasquet (or Monfils) semi-final in the other. Given that they could only attend one of the matches, which one would they prefer? Surprisingly, Ombeline and Alain, who have been choosing the French players so far, went with the Federer-Djokovic match, while Christian, Aurélie and Catherine all took the Nadal-Gasquet match. I could not make sense of that deviation from the norm in the answers to that specific question, but then again, when talking to fans, must we look for logic in every answer? I think not! In the case of a choice of a ticket between the women’s final involving a French player vs. Maria Sharapova and the men’s final between Djokovic and Nadal (nos 1 and 2 in the world), Aurélie proved to be the only one who said she would “naturally” watch the ladies’ final with a side-eyed look at her dad and Alain who did not hesitate a second in choosing the Djokovic vs. Nadal final. In this case, Ombeline and Catherine also chose the men’s final over Sharapova and the French player. Alain did however add a caveat: if I gave her the choice of a women’s final between Gabriela Sabatini and Anna Kournikova, his answer would have been completely different!!
Nostalgia took over when I began asking questions about what they like about Roland Garros, and what they could change if they had the power to do it with the snap of a finger. With the exception of Alain, the difficulty of circulating around the grounds and the lack of space came up in all conversations (see picture below for an idea of how stifling the crowds can get). Aurélie, a fairly tall girl, complained that the seats at Suzanne Lenglen had no leg room and that her legs were aching after watching Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeat Jerzy Janowicz in straight sets. Catherine was adamant about the negative effects of over-crowding: she said that she brought her son for the first time to Roland Garros, and that he was so disappointed by the stifling lack of space that they were going to have to leave early because he lost his enthusiasm to watch matches.
Alain’s expression turned pensive, and he said that he is not a good person to answer a question about ‘changes’, because he always loved Roland Garros with all its pluses and minuses. He even began talking about how it was “at that spot, right there” (fixing his eyes and pointing to a location close to the player’s tunnel on the way to Suzanne Lenglen court) that his son saw Steffi Graf in the 80s and got her autograph on a picture. Apparently, they framed that autographed picture and it still sits in a prime spot in their home. He also affirmed that the demolition of Court 1 in the upcoming years as part of the renovation plans makes him sad because of the endless great moments that were staged on that court: “history will be demolished, not just a tennis court” he said. Christian added that the round stands – thus called ‘the bull ring’ by the Anglophone media – made it unique in that there were no bad seats in the stadium. The two ladies, Catherine and Ombeline, both took a serious tone about the issue of high prices at Roland Garros. Catherine kept rolling her eyes, citing the prices of some items. Ombeline took it a step further: “A shirt for 55 euros? An umbrella for 65 euros? A towel for 75? Allez! I don’t want to hear anyone complain in this country about not having any money if these items are selling left and right in Roland Garros, or else the managers of these boutiques live in a dream world!” Ombeline went on and on, stretching her comments all the way to the President François Hollande, without much regard to the type of vocabulary used, mind you!
Stay tuned for Part B of this article for a comparison of the above, with how English tennis fans react to similar questions about their beloved Wimbledon. Coming soon!