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Paris, Roland-Garros and the Olympic Games: a long story

By Julien Pichené   on   Monday 15 May 2017
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It's official: Paris will host the Olympics! And that means Roland-Garros will host the Olympics. Exactly a hundred years after the 1924 Paris Olympics, and 96 years after Roland-Garros stadium was built to host the French Open and the Davis Cup, in 2024 the legendary venue will become an Olympic stadium, playing host to the tennis events as well as the boxing and Paralympic tennis, rugby, basketball and five-a-side football. This exciting news is the start of a new chapter in the long history that unites Paris, Roland-Garros and the Olympic Games.

1900 – women’s tennis for the first time

Tennis was part of the programme at the first modern Olympiad, at Athens in 1896, but only the men’s events were included, and it was not until four years later at the Games in Paris in 1900 that women were invited to the party. The lawn tennis competition, which along with golf was the only one open to ladies, was held in the idyllic surroundings of the leafy Ile de Puteaux, with players transported to the island on an electric boat powered by a trolley-bus. With the universal exposition going on at the same time, Hugh Lawrence Doherty and Charlotte Cooper took gold back to Great Britain from the two singles competitions. In doubles, French star Max Decugis made the final alongside Basil de Garmendina of USA, but came away empty-handed. There were some rather curious rules at the early Olympiads, one of them being that players of different nationalities were allowed to team up, but any medals they won would not be awarded. Doherty was also given "an exquisite little liqueur table" at the closing ceremony to go with his gold medal from the singles, according to reports in "La vie au grand air"…

Suzanne Lenglen and Max Decugis – gold medallists in the mixed doubles at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. Lenglen also won gold in the singles, Decugis in the men’s doubles.

1924 – Huge crowds, 10,000 spectators at the women’s final!

When the Olympic Games returned to Paris in 1924, lawn tennis moved from Puteaux Island to Colombes, and the Brits were forced to make way for the Americans. Despite this US domination however, the French manged to pick up four medals, two in the doubles thanks to the future Musketeers (Borotra, Cochet, Lacoste and Brugnon had not yet earned the nickname or indeed produced the kind of results that would make those in charge of French tennis build Roland-Garros stadium in their honour – that would come four years later). Henri Cochet also made the final of the singles, where he had to give best to Vincent Richards, but the tournament’s main attraction was an 21-year-old from Marseille by the name of Julie Vlasto. She may have been thrashed by the seemingly unbeatable American Helen Wills in the final, but she certainly drew a crowd on 20 July 1924. "The stands around centre court at Colombes were packed," said French daily La Presse. "There are around 10,000 people here who are happy to tolerate the scorching sunshine." However, this would be the last Games to include tennis events until 1988, given that the professional or semi-professional status of tennis champions did not fulfil the amateur conditions required for the Olympics.

Julie Vlasto, Roland-Garros champ and Olympics silver medalist in 1924

Boxing at Roland-Garros... a long and storied tradition!

For the 2024 Games, Roland-Garros stadium is also slated to host boxing events, and not for the first time. Indeed, the sweet science has enjoyed great popularity at the Porte d’Auteuil over the years. On 7 July 1946, a few hours before meeting future lover Edith Piaf for the first time at a cabaret in Montmartre, Marcel Cerdan filled Centre Court. Despite suffering from a fractured right hand, the French superstar beat Holman Williams in ten rounds.

Jean-Claude Bouttier did not enjoy the same success on 29 September 1973 against a terrifying opponent in the shape of Carlos Monzon. This was a world title bout, but unfortunately Bouttier never remotely looked like winning the belt that night, despite 15,000 fans coming to Centre Court to cheer the Frenchman on under floodlights. The event had been organised by actor Alain Delon, who did not allow TV cameras in "as they would have made Bouttier even more nervous". Alas, it was to no avail...

1988: Philippe Chatrier brings tennis back after a 64-year absence

Not content with giving Roland-Garros the prestige that it has today, Philippe Chatrier also made bringing tennis back to the Olympics one of his driving ambitions. As president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) from 1977 – 1991, he managed to get tennis back in, first of all as a demonstration sport at Los Angeles in 1984. "The Olympic Games is the finest sporting event in the world. I believe that it is in the interest of the Games to host the best sportsmen and women in the world," Chatrier said at the time. His wish was to be granted at the following Olympiad, in Seoul. "Back then, people thought that our sport had merely grabbed on to the coat-tails of the others," said Henri Leconte of the 1988 Games which a number of top players chose not to attend, believing that the Olympics should have been exclusively for amateurs. Nowadays, the world’s top stars all dream of making it onto the podium, even though no ranking points (either ATP or WTA) are at stake. Chatrier was truly a visionary in many respects, and the Olympics is just one illustration of that.

Roland-Garros - Olympic Games: gold and silverware tough to combine

Only three people have managed to win Roland-Garros and the Olympic Games in the same year: Suzanne Lenglen (1920) and Steffi Graf (1988) in the women’s, and Rafael Nadal (2008) in the men’s. Plenty of players have managed to win the two events in separate years, however.

Jennifer Capriati (1992 Olympics – Roland-Garros 2001), Andre Agassi (1996 Olympics – Roland-Garros 1999), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Roland-Garros 1996 – 2000 Olympics), Justine Henin (Roland-Garros 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 – 2004 Olympics) and Serena Williams (Roland-Garros 2002, 2013 and 2015 – 2012 Olympics).

Before Open era:

- André Gobert (1912 Olympics - Roland-Garros 1911 and 1920)
- Marguerite Broquedis (1912 Olympics - Roland-Garros 1913 and 1914)
- Helen Wills (1924 Olympics - Roland-Garros 1928, 1929, 1930 and 1932)

Open era:

- Jennifer Capriati (1992 Olympics - Roland-Garros 2001)
- Andre Agassi (1996 Olympics - Roland-Garros 1999)
- Evgueni Kafelnikov (Roland-Garros 1996 - Olympics 2000)
- Justine Henin (Roland-Garros 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 - Olympics 2004)
- Serena Williams (Roland-Garros 2002, 2013 and 2015 - Olympics 2012).

What is unusual however is that the only year the Games were played on clay, in Barcelona in 1992, the results could barely have been more different from one (supposedly similar) competition to the other. In the men’s, Marc Rosset won the gold medal after falling in the first round in Paris, and he even managed to knock out two-time defending French Open champ Jim Courier in the Round of 16 of the Olympics (although it has to be said that the American was struggling for form by then, after an amazing first half of the season). In the women’s, Monica Seles – who had won three in a row at the Porte d'Auteuil – was not even allowed to play at the Games, having been barred by the ITF for an unjustified absence from the Fed Cup the year before. Young Jennifer Capriati made the quarter-finals in Paris and then went on to win her first big title in the form of a gold medal in Barcelona, before spending the following years in the tennis wilderness. There was much talk of having the tennis at the Rio Games on clay before the Brazilians ended up opting for hard courts. Maybe Olympic gold will be fought for on the red dirt once again in 2024…

2024: Back on clay - the Olympics come to Roland-Garros

If Tokyo − host of the 2020 Olympic Games − opts for a hard surface, as is likely, then Paris 2024 will mark the great Olympic comeback of the clay surface, 32 years after the Barcelona Games. Will the King of Clay still be on the scene? Rafael Nadal will be 38 years old by then... Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will both be 37, and Roger Federer will have just turned 43. Suffice to say that in seven years' time, the men's tennis scene will look completely different than it does today. However, some of today's big names might still be in play on the women's side – and could well harbour some burning ambitions. Among the most recent Roland Garros champions, Garbiñe Muguruza will only be 30, and Jelena Ostapenko will be just 27. The sky's the limit for these young stars!

Jelena Ostapenko
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