Before writing their names in the legend of Roland Garros, some champions experienced chaotic beginnings in Paris. Because the first time is always the best, we look back at some forgotten memories, from first kisses and a car accident to premature baldness…
Monica Seles' flowers
In 1989, Roland Garros’ central court discovered for the first time a young Yugoslav, aged just fifteen, who was making her beginnings on the professional tour. With disarming elegance, and on the advice of her coach, Nick Bollettieri, Monica Seles entered the court in the most original way – distributing flowers to spectators in the front rows before her third-round match against the number four seed, Zina Garrison. Courteously, she gave the last bouquet to her opponent who, apparently annoyed by such theatrics, refused it before being crushed 6/3 6/2 by the new darling of the Parisian public. Thereafter, Seles made it to the semi-finals, where she was eliminated by the world No. 1 Steffi Graf.
Hicham Arazi and his Moroccan Flag
May 1997. For his first senior tournament at Roland Garros, Hicham Arazi managed the feat of beating Marcelo Rios in the second round. The morning before the match, his father, omnipresent on the side-lines, ran into Jacques Le Led, the man in charge of court maintenance, and confessed something. "The first time I came to Roland Garros, Hicham was 5 years old. He looked around the Centre Court, and he said, 'Daddy, why is there no Moroccan flag here?" I replied: 'No, but maybe one day you will hang it there'." After hearing this anecdote, the stadium services immediately contacted the Embassy of Morocco, sent a messenger to get the diplomatic banner and hung it in the stadium ten minutes before the game. "We then went to see Hicham in the dressing room to tell him the news,” says Jérôme Le Led. “And he was very touched. "
Find this story on 40ans.wearetennis.com/en/m/373
Rafael Nadal on crutches
Everyone knows the story: Rafael Nadal won his first French Open in 2005 at the first attempt. But who knows if this Mallorcan empire couldn't have been built two years earlier, when the Spaniard was twice forced to withdraw due to injuries to his elbow (2003) and his ankle (2004). His first visit to Porte d’Auteuil? As a tourist, with his family, sunglasses on his nose and crutches in his hands. Finally, for his debut amongst the seniors the following year, Nadal was lynched by the Parisian crowd during a match against Sebastien Grosjean. Amidst an atmosphere of boos and insults, the referee had to stop the game for nine minutes... although we all know the result.
Yannick Noah first kisses
"The Cameroonian". Quite a mistake made by the French daily L'Equipe in 1978 when describing Yannick Noah’s first game at Roland Garros… Wearing high socks, short shorts and a fitted polo shirt, that day, the Frenchman(!) was at ease with his style. "He's a great representative of 1970s France,” says Frédéric Godart, a French fashion sociologist. “Nothing cheesy, he's the French illustration of French success." Three years earlier, when he was a resident within the precincts of the Paris stadium, Yannick, driving his Abarth Bianchi, reversed out at the same time as his room-mate, Pascal Portes, in the parking lot of the enclosure and their two cars collided. "I think it’s the only car accident at the French Open,” he laughed. “I say it like that but I think Pascal never got his license. I’m sure he bought it." For Noah, the first real time at Roland goes back even earlier, at the age of 14, when he was playing the junior French Championships, from which he holds a tender memory: "My first kiss was on Roland's Centre Court with a young girl from the Languedoc league, she was gorgeous. Her name was Mylène."
Gustavo Kuerten's Phone cards
Before drawing hearts on Roland Garros' Philippe Chatrier court, lifting the trophy three times and falling in love with his adoring Parisian public, Gustavo Kuerten won the junior edition in 1994, at the first time of asking. For fifteen days, the Brazilian used, and abused, something offered by the organization: one, and only one, phone card per week to contact his family, no more. "Gustavo was coming to see me every day,” remembers Martine Letouzé, a former stewardess at Roland Garros. “It lasted for two weeks, since he won the tournament." After his victory, Gustavo apologized and introduced his family, who had come over for the occasion, to the person who helped him "keep his spirits up." A class act.
Find this story on 40ans.wearetennis.com/en/m/48
Andre Agassi's wig
When, during the spring of 1988, an 18-year-old Andre Agassi rolled into town for the first time at Roland Garros, no one had ever seen a player with such a long bleached mane, let alone with denim shorts and such powerful shots from the baseline. That year it would take an inspired Mats Wilander to stop him in the semi-finals. Even more surprising, the Las Vegas Kid revealed in his autobiography that that year, the legendary peroxidised hairstyle was actually a wig hiding his premature baldness: "Every morning I woke up with a part of my identity on the pillow or in the sink.” Tough times.
John McEnroe never sleeps
In the spring of 1977, when John McEnroe arrived in Paris to compete at Roland Garros, this frail and awkward redhead hid his shyness with a nasty attitude. At just 18, angry outbursts were already second nature to him. Broke, the American was staying in a cheap hotel and had to play his last qualifying match in the morning. The concierge of the dive where he was shacked up refused to get up at 6:00am for John McEnroe, who didn't have an alarm clock, or any other way to wake up for this matter. Therefore, he decided to stay awake. After a sleepless night, he showed up at dawn outside the (locked) gates of the stadium. Absolutely knackered, he still won the game. Better yet, being in the main draw meant sixty dollars per day for the participants: McEnroe quickly used his money to check into a decent hotel room and sleep for 24 hours. "The most beautiful rest of my life" he confessed. The result of this Parisian escapade: 15 games in less than three weeks, a warning for bad behaviour, and two victories, in mixed doubles and juniors.
And Marat Safin became a pro…
Sexy, party animal, quadrilingual, tennis player, temperamental - "I broke 1055 rackets in ten years" - and now, politician: Marat Safin is a Russian national treasure. In 1998, he became known to the world at Roland Garros, where he defeated Agassi and Kuerten before Pioline stopped him after a marathon match in the last sixteen. This Parisian experience, it turned out, was close to his last chance to turn professional. "The first time I came to Roland Garros, I was 17 and I had $500 in my pocket, he recalls. It was to be the last tournament that would be funded by my family. All my sponsors had dropped me. Luckily, I had a good run, otherwise I would never have become a tennis player."
By Victor Le Grand