Space, time and history: decoding the Chatrier effect
Even among the Grand Slam centre stages, Court Philippe-Chatrier has no equal.
“It makes you feel like an ant.”
That was Jennifer Brady’s seven-word verdict on Court Philippe-Chatrier, the cavernous centre court at Stade Roland-Garros.
Playing just the second major of her career in Paris, the world No.88 got her first taste of tennis on one of the sport’s four Grand Slam centerpieces on Monday – the closest she had come was a fourth-round appearance on the Australian Open’s secondary stadium in January. And, just to up the ante, the American faced French No.1 Kiki Mladenovic, giving the ailing 13th seed an almighty scare before falling in three sets, 3-6, 6-3, 9-7.
It was a surreal experience for the former college player in just her second major.
“I don't think I ever played in an atmosphere like that,” the 22-year-old admitted. “When she would win a point it was like somebody had a microphone into my ear. But it didn't really affect me that much. I really enjoyed it. I embraced it, and it was a lot of fun. At UCLA we got two people at our matches – and they were donors.”
Baselines may be 78 feet apart the world over, but even recreational players and armchair fans know that no two tennis courts are exactly alike. Surfaces, run-offs, shelter from the elements – all can have an effect on a player’s game. And that’s before you factor in the size, noise and nature of the crowd, or the sense of playing on a small patch of tennis history.
“We climb the stairs with all the signatures of so many top players,” Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said of the experience of walking to Chatrier ahead of a match. “In the stairs, it’s like you can see the light at the exit. That’s so great, especially when you saw it on TV as a kid. I lived it on TV before experiencing it for real – that makes it always special.”
Australia’s Ashleigh Barty knows how Brady feels. On her Chatrier debut back in 2014 she too faced French opposition, losing to Alize Cornet, noting the impact of the fans on the match afterwards.
“I’ve played on all the centre courts around the world in the Grand Slams, which is pretty cool – they're all amazing courts,” she said. “This one is definitely different to the rest of them – the crowd got involved a little bit.”
Chatrier crowds are typically the most animated and involved audiences in tennis. Cheers and whistles break out amid the regular bursts of ‘Allez’ and ‘Ole’ from the stands, leaving the players in no doubt about their feelings about the action in front of them.
“I think the crowd knows tennis very well,” three-time former champion Serena Williams said back in 2014. “I think the crowd loves tennis, and I think the crowd is really genuine in the heart. That’s why they know what they want when they see people play, and I think it’s a great thing.”
"I lived it on TV before experiencing it for real – that makes it always special.”
Gustavo Kuerten, another three-time champion, once said Chatrier was “like the Maracana” – perhaps the highest honour a Brazilian can bestow upon a tennis stadium, while also comparing the open space and domineering nature of the football and tennis arenas. With a capacity of 14,991, Chatrier ranks just ahead of Melbourne Park’s Rod Laver Arena (14,820) and Wimbledon’s Centre Court (14,916), though all three are some way short of Arthur Ashe Stadium’s 23,771 seats for the US Open.
But for the players, the clay court features a 32-foot run-off behind the baseline, more than both Ashe and Centre Court (27ft) and around the same as Laver, which is also wider and therefore the largest Grand Slam court worldwide. Factor in the slow, high-bouncing clay, and Chatrier offers that rarest of combinations on a tennis court: time and space.
And that makes a difference – just ask Rafael Nadal. “It’s obvious that a big court helps a little bit more my game,” said the nine-time Roland-Garros champion, arguably the game’s greatest ever clay court player. “For the opponent, is a little bit more difficult to attack, to see the clear winner.”
And a filip for some is a complication for others. “Many times I had to get used to the dimensions of this court,” admitted Roger Federer during his last appearance at Roland-Garros two years ago. “It just felt like there is so much space behind and on the sides that naturally you have a tendency to go backwards.
“It's weird to explain – I have just got to remind myself I'm playing forward and not backwards.
“This is clearly is the most open, probably,” Federer added, factoring conditions on Chatrier into the equation. “Most winds can get into this stadium – US Open too, to some extent, but you feel like it’s higher up, so you feel you are more protected.”
That may change in 2020 when the installation of a roof over the court is completed, aligning Roland-Garros with Wimbledon and the Australian and US Opens in having their centre court covered in the event of rain without dramatically affecting the playing conditions.
“There is a major difference between the Roland-Garros roof and the Wimbledon roof,” Bernard Giudicelli, President of the FFT, explained on the eve of the tournament. “[The planned roof at] Roland-Garros is like a cover… with a space of more or less one-and-a-half metres between the top of the building and the 11 wings that we are going to cover the roof. The stadium will be able to breathe, as well as the surface, and there will be no major changes in [humidity] between the stadium and outside. The Roland-Garros tournament will still be outdoors and on surfaces that we hope will be in the sun."
But whatever may change, nothing will dampen the magic and majesty of one of the sport’s grand old stages.
“Of course, it’s a special feeling,” said Nadal, who never tires of taking to Chatrier. “When you have achieved what I have achieved and experienced what I have on that court, when you return to play on that court, it’s a very unique feeling. The most important and special moments of my career, I’ve experienced on that court.”