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The only clay court grand slam is renowned for its style, intensity and heritage

Court Simonne Mathieu at Roland Garros
Court Simonne Mathieu at Roland Garros | Crosscourt View

By Stephen Higgins | 24 February 2020

Name The French Open or Roland Garros

Dates May-June

Established 1891

Surface Clay

Tour ATP & WTA

Tier Grand Slam

Prize-money €42.7 million total for the 2019 event. The men's and women's singles champions each received €2.3 million.

Location Roland Garros is situated in the Bois de Boulogne, a public park in the western part of Paris.

Seated by an immaculate red clay court. Sunkissed and gorging on a sumptuous French pastry as the world’s finest players slide before you. Roland Garros is an incomparable joy for this writer.

Each major has its distinguishing attributes. While Wimbledon celebrates frantic play amongst serene surroundings, the French Open relishes the flamboyant until the opening ball is struck and the gruelling rallies commence.

As the only major played on clay, Roland Garros is unique and rewards certain players over others. The Parisian dirt accentuates topspin (Rafael Nadal), demands consistency (Rafael Nadal) and often requires brute strength (Rafael Nadal) to finish points.

You may have noticed the first mentions of that special Spaniard, but we’ll get to him later, don’t worry. First, let’s go back to the tournament’s origins.

The Beginning

The first French Championships (Championnat de France) was played in 1891 at Parc de Saint-Cloud in Paris. H. Briggs, an Englishman resident in the city, won the event after only a day’s play.

A mixed doubles match at the French Championships in 1912
A mixed doubles match at le Championnat de France in 1912 | BNF

Until 1925, the Championnat de France was only open to members of French tennis clubs. It’s understandable then that until the the dawn of World War I, it was dominated by home players.

Victors included Parisien Max Decugis, who claimed the singles title on eight occasions between 1903 and 1914. The women’s singles was added in 1897 with Adine Masson the inaugural champion.

Between The Wars

When the event resumed in 1920, France had a collection of home grown superstars to cheer. Suzanne Lenglen and the Four Musketeers (Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, Jacques Brugnon and René Lacoste) dominated the Championnat for the following decade.

The Four Musketeers (Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, Jacques Brugnon and René Lacoste)
The Four Musketeers (Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, Jacques Brugnon and René Lacoste) in 1927 | BNF

Lenglen won six of the seven singles events between 1920 and 1926. La Divine also captured 12 French titles in doubles and mixed. The men’s events belonged to the Musketeers during this period with 10 of the 11 singles titles from 1922 to 1932 going to one of the quartet.

In the 20s, the tournament also underwent two significant changes. It was opened to international players in 1925 and three years later - due to continued expansion - moved to the larger surrounds of Roland Garros in the Bois de Boulogne.

In the years leading up to World War II, the Championnat took on a more international flavour. The United States enjoyed success in the form of four-time champion Helen Wills, Don Budge and Don McNeill. The Germans also did well with multiple titles for Hilde Krahwinkel Sperling and Gottfried von Cramm.

The End of Amateurs

The tournament resumed in 1946 and the United States continued to dominate the women’s side.

A mixed doubles match at the French Championships in 1912
A trio of French champions (from left): Doris Hart (1950, 52), Shirley Fry (1951) and Maureen Connolly (1953, 54) | Dutch National Archives

From 1946 to 1960, the event was won by a US woman on ten occasions. Noteworthy champions during that spell include Maureen Connolly, who won the calendar grand slam in 1953, and Althea Gibson (1956), the first African American player to win a major.

One of the more interesting post-war competitors on the men’s side has to be Jaroslav Drobny. Born in Prague, Drobny defected in 1949 and became an Egyptian citizen. Bespectacled, left-handed and armed with a formidable serve, Drobny was a superstar on clay. He was twice a champion (1951, 52) and a three-time finalist (1946, 48, 50) at Roland Garros. Drobny also won the doubles and mixed titles in 1948.

As the sixties arrived, like in most tournaments of the time, there was a wave of Australian success. After Ken Rosewall won in 1953, a slew of Australian men followed including Rod Laver (1962, 69), Roy Emerson (1963, 67) and Tony Roche (1966). Meanwhile, Margaret Court of New South Wales won the first of five singles titles in 1962.

The Open Era

This is the point when all the names will be familiar to you.

In 1969, Laver beat Rosewall in the final and eventually finished the year with all four majors, a repeat of his 1962 feat. The following year, Margaret Court also achieved the calendar grand slam and defeated Helga Niessen-Masthoff in the Roland Garros final.

There were many great French Open champions in the latter half of the 20th century. However, it’s probably fair to say that one man and two women defined their respective generations.

Through the 1970s and 80s, Chris Evert was the Queen of Paris. The Floridian won a record seven French Open titles and reached the last four in 12 of her 13 appearances at Roland Garros.

Steffi Graf at Wimbledon 1988
In 1988, Steffi Graf completed the 'Golden Slam' when she won all four majors plus the Olympic gold medal | Kate T

Germany’s Steffi Graf took over from Evert and captured six titles between 1987 and 1999. Incredibly, it could have easily been more. Graf also lost three finals at Roland Garros (1989, 90, 92).

Before Nadal, Bjorn Borg was the King of Clay. At just 18, the Swede captured his first Roland Garros title (1974) and went onto win five more before his shock retirement at the age of 26.

The New Millenium

Roland Garros in the 21st century has been defined by the extraordinary dominance of Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal retrieves a ball at Roland Garros
Rafael Nadal is the greatest man to ever grace a clay court | Beth Wilson

In his maiden appearance, the Mallorcan captured the title in 2005 aged just 19. Since then, Nadal has accumulated an astonishing winning record of 98% (93-2) as of the start of 2020. The two losses came against Robin Soderling (2009 QF) and Novak Djokovic (2015 QF).

Over the same period, the women’s draw has produced far more champions and the odd surprise. Justine Henin and Serena Williams are the most successful competitors since 2000 with four and three titles respectively. There was a massive shock in 2017 when unseeded Latvian Jelena Ostapenko beat Simona Halep in the final to win her first ever title.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • In 2019, tournament organisers unveiled the new Court Simonne Mathieu. One of the finest players of the 1930s, Mathieu won singles (2), doubles (6) and mixed titles (2) at Roland Garros.
  • The French Open hasn’t been kind to many of the sport’s greatest players. Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Venus Williams, John McEnroe and Martina Hingis are just some of the great names who never lifted a French Open singles title.
  • While there was copious success for French players in the early years, home fans have had less to cheer in recent times. The last French women’s champion was Mary Pierce in 2000, while you have to go back to 1983 for the last men’s winner (Yannick Noah).