A new Roland Garros is unveiling itself to fans as main draw players took to the courts on Sunday in what is now a classy environment featuring an 80% rebuilt Philippe Chatrier and a brand new semi-sunken court.
I've always said that when I was younger and as a young professional I had most of my good results on the clay initially, but it definitely hadn't gone my way for a couple of years, so it is nice to see and nice to feel that I'm at a good level and that translates onto the clay. Jo Konta
Named after France’s second-most decorated female player, the brand new 5,000 seat Court Simonne Mathieu nestles amongst the area’s graceful 19-century greenhouses.
The Roland Garros redevelopment involved expanding the venue into the picturesque Serres d’Auteuil, the famed botanical garden that is home to 6,000 square meters of greenhouses built in 1898 and which contains works by the sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Court Simonne Mathieu is therefore surrounded by four greenhouses showcasing rare plants with the expansion adding more than 1,300 sq m of greenhouses to the existing ones.
“It’s all finally come together, we have our new court at Roland Garros, and I’m keen to see the first players take to the court here because I think there’s going to be an electric and extraordinary atmosphere,” Tournament Director Guy Forget told Reuters.
“It’s a kind of smaller version of the Philippe-Chatrier court, surrounded by greenery, it’s a really unique court.
“Players who participate in Wimbledon and other Grand Slam tournaments can find Roland Garros a little bit outdated.
“I believe they’ve been supporting this little metamorphosis at Roland Garros for the last two years and this Simonne Mathieu court is a perfect example [of that],” he added.
“We can sell more tickets, welcome more people, have star players playing on a luxurious court, and I think it’s something we’ve been lacking until now.”
The new Roland Garros, which will be completely finished in 2020 when the main court, Philippe Chatrier, has a retractable roof to match the other Grand Slams, still has its own feel.
Reigning champion Simona Halep, who comes into the event still searching for her first title since winning Montreal last August, famously said she thought up to 15 players had a real shot at winning the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen last year, but this year the field has narrowed.
“I would say probably 10 now, because a few of them are very strong, and they had a good season on clay, like Pliskova, like Bertens,” Halep told reporters at Media Day at Roland Garros.
“They are playing really well. They have a big chance, but I think in the Top 10, any of us, I can include myself, we can win. So we will see.”
The first edition of Roland Garros was staged in 1897 and since then, only three women’s champions have been crowned who were seeded outside the Top 10, namely Margaret Scriven in 1933, Francesca Schiavone in 2010 and Jelena Ostapenko in 2017.
The Top 10 seeds at this year’s French Open and their best result this season are:
- Naomi Osaka – Australian Open champion
- Karolina Pliskova – Rome champion
- Simona Halep – Madrid finalist
- Kiki Bertens – Madrid champion
- Angelique Kerber – Indian Wells finalist
- Petra Kvitova – Australian Open finalist
- Sloane Stephens – Madrid semi-finalist
- Ashleigh Barty – Miami champion
- Elina Svitolina – Indian Wells semi-finalist
- Serena Williams – Australian Open quarter-finalist
“I’m not counting, as Simona is, but yeah, I think it’s not as open as probably last year,” said Petra Kvitova, who sits at No 1 on the Porsche Race to Shenzhen.
“I think that we see some players playing really well on the clay and who had a good season so far. So, yeah, I think it’s not as open.
“I think of course we have so many winners of the tournaments this year, but of course a Grand Slam is just a little bit different.”
In a season that has seen unprecedented 18 different champions of the first 18 tour events, with champions ranging from teenagers to veterans and everything in between, anything can happen on the terre battue of Roland Garros, where weather and court conditions can change daily, if not hourly.
Making it tougher to assess the Top 10 field is the spread of form and fitness.
No 2 Pliskova (Rome), No 4 Bertens (Madrid), and No 6 Kvitova (Stuttgart) come into Paris having won the three biggest tour events on European clay this season.
“I don’t really put any pressure on myself, I would say,” Bertens told reporters at Media Day.
Bertens is tied for the tour lead in wins on clay this season, highlighted by her title run in Madrid, where she became the first woman to win the title without dropping a set.
After winning Madrid, she rose to a career-high No 4, supplanting Betty Stove as the highest-ranked Dutchwoman in history.
A clay-court force who made her first Slam semi-final here at Roland Garros in 2016, Bertens is seeded in the Top 4 at a Slam for the first time in her career.
“For me, it’s just another tournament again, and like every tournament I go into this year, I try to play for the win, and that’s what I’m going to do again here.
“Yeah, it’s just like every day is a new day. Every day I try to improve myself, so I just see it like as one of the weeks on tour.”
Meanwhile, No 5 Kerber (ankle), No 9 Svitolina (knee), and No 10 Serena (knee) are managing or healing from injuries that impacted their clay swings.
Halep and Stephens, who contested the final last year, have yet to win titles this season, but are both rounding into form back on clay.
“I have had some good practices and just happy to be back here, obviously,” Stephens told reporters.
“I had a good year last year, so I just kind of want to back it up a little bit. That would be nice.”
Last but not least, two talented youngsters in No 1 Osaka and No 8 Barty, who are beginning to find their games on clay, a surface they confessed at the start of the season weren’t their favourite, could make big inroads in Paris.
Prior to this season, Osaka had just 9 match-wins on clay across her career and went 7-1 this year, while Barty, after winning the biggest title of her career in Miami, went on to make her biggest clay quarter-final in Madrid, losing to Halep.
“I mean, definitely for me I feel like I should be an all-court player,” Osaka said at Media Day.
“Honestly, it’s been a bit of a ride trying to figure out how to play better on clay throughout these years, but I think this year I have been playing well.”
“So I’m really excited to see what happens here.”
As for British prospects, Britain’s Johanna Konta has risen 16 places to World No 26 after a great display on the clay and making it to the final in Rome, one of the biggest tournaments on the WTA Tour, last weekend.
With a welcome return to form, the 28-year-old has won 10 tour-level matches on the red stuff so far in 2019, more than in the rest of her career put together, and the subsequent rise in her ranking has made her the 26th seed for the year’s second Grand Slam.
Her reward is a first-round clash with German qualifier Antonia Lottner on Monday, a golden chance for a first main-draw victory at Roland Garros.
A third-round clash with fourth seed Kiki Bertens, who was among Konta’s scalps in Rome, along with Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams, would be an enticing prospect.
“I never had any doubts that I can play to a good level on this surface,” said Konta, who began working with a new coach, Frenchman Dimitri Zavialoff, at the end of last season.
“I’ve always said that when I was younger and as a young professional I had most of my good results on the clay initially, but it definitely hadn’t gone my way for a couple of years, so it is nice to see and nice to feel that I’m at a good level and that translates onto the clay.”
Konta offered support to Fed Cup team-mate Katie Boulter following her late withdrawal from the French Open on Friday.
Boulter’s name surprisingly appeared in the draw despite it being revealed in early May that she was struggling to be fit for any of the grass-court season because of a back injury.
The 22-year-old then travelled to Roland Garros on Friday to withdraw and collected the approximately £20,000 cheque she was entitled to.
The rule allowing injured competitors to claim half of the first-round prize money was introduced at the start of last year to stop players taking to the court for a few games and then withdrawing, which had become an increasing issue as prize money rocketed.
Eyebrows were raised when Boulter then insisted she had been hoping to compete, despite having not appeared on a match court since April and having spent the past week in London.
Konta said: “I think what she did was perfectly within the rules, as far as I understand.
“I think that’s why we had the rule change happen, for the tournament to still get good quality first-round matches, for the players that are hurt to have the freedom to be able to pull out and still feel they are not losing out on income.”
Boulter aggravated her back problem during Britain’s Fed Cup victory over Kazakhstan last month where she won the deciding point after two dramatic victories from Konta over Yulia Putintseva and Zarina Diyas.
Konta is the sole Brit in the women’s draw, both Heather Watson and Katie Swan having lost in the second and third rounds of qualifying respectively.
Swan overcame Wang Xiyu 6-4 0-6 7-5 to set up a third-round qualifier against the Slovenian Kristina Kucova, but Watson was beaten in three sets by Valentini Grammatikopoulou.
The British No 3 lost 5-7 7-6(6) 6-7(7) to the Greek, missing two match points before losing the third-set tiebreak after 2 hours and 44 minutes.
20-year-old Swan revealed she was at such a low ebb only 3 weeks ago that she considered not playing at the French Open for fear of embarrassing herself.
After seeing a psychologist, Swan, ranked 208 in the world, almost made it through qualifying, losing to Kucova of Slovakia in straight sets, 6-4 7-5.
After coming so close to reaching the main draw for the first time, Swan now says she is heading back to London with her ‘head held high’.
She wrote on Twitter: “Every match I lost I didn’t just feel like a worse tennis player, but also less of a person.
“I decided to keep these thoughts to myself because I didn’t want to be a burden for anyone and it’s also very hard to open up about this.
“I decided to meet with a psychologist and really open up about everything I have been feeling.
“The first thing she told me is this is totally normal! She also congratulated me on making the effort to change because that is a big step in itself.
“I now realise the life of a tennis player isn’t about pleasing people or showing your worth to them, it’s about proving it to yourself.”
As Swan leaves Paris in better shape than when she arrived, Roland Garros keeps its French identity, naming its new court after Mathieu, twice a French Open singles champion and a member of the resistance during World War II.
“It’s significant to have this name, Simonne Mathieu, this woman who was both a great tennis champion and a great member of the resistance, who didn’t hesitate to risk her life physically, to stand by General de Gaulle – a person who should enlighten us and enlighten the younger generations,” said Forget.
Fans and players will also this year bid farewell to Court One, known as ‘the Bullring’ due to its round shape and unique atmosphere, before it is demolished to make space for a lawn.