Why is the French Open called Roland Garros?

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World. Things are heating up in Paris. Seriously, temperatures there are in the 90s. But the real heat is on the red clay courts of the French Open, or perhaps I should call it Roland Garros. It’s confusing, but the tennis tournament in Paris is actually known by both names, just depends on whom you ask. Christopher Clarey is a reporter for the New York Times and he’s in Paris. Why do people call the site of the French Open “Roland Garros” instead of the French Open?


Christopher Clarey: Yeah, how much time do you have, Marco? Roland Garros, funnily enough, was not really a tennis player. I mean, he did play tennis some. He was actually a WWI-era aviator who was a war hero, who died near the end of the war, and he was also a flyer who set a lot of records for speed in his flying, and so he was a very well-known figure in France. But when it came along time to build the stadium here in Paris for tennis, it was built in a big hurry because the French musketeers, they were called, had won the Davis Cup from the United States back in 1927 in the US, they’d never won it before. Big event; they had to build a stadium in a hurry. So, they decided to put it on the edge of Paris, and one of the deals was they wanted to name the people who gave the land or that were part of the negotiation wanted it to be named for their friend, their departed friend, Rolo Garros. And so it was.


Werman: And he had no connection to tennis, though?


Clarey: He played some, but he was much more of a rugby player, and his friends were rugby players, and the area was more for rugby than for tennis initially, which is why they had the power of getting his name on there.


Werman: So when I watch the French Open, I often see the announcers and there’s this constant interchange of Roland Garros, French Open. How do they decide what to call it?


Clarey: It’s a real international quandary. I guess there’s something equivalent with the British Open and golf, which anybody in Britain would never call it the British Open, they’d call it the Open Championship. Actually with the French Open and Roland Garros, it’s similar because in all the Latin countries and a big chunk of the world it’s Roland Garros and only Roland Garros, and in the English speaking countries generally it’s French Open. It wasn’t as big a problem until recently now where you have things like Twitter hashtags and websites and things like that where it gets very tricky because there actually is no French Open website, believe it or not--officially, anyway. It’s all Roland Garros. If you type French Open into Google, it’ll automatically take you to the RolandGarros.com website.


Werman: Wow. It sounds almost as loaded as the difference between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Gulf.


Clarey: I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s probably right. I mean, it really is one of these things where in the modern area people want to go to a single name, and Roland Garros tried to fight for a long time commercially to make it only Roland Garros, and I think they found it was a losing battle. Now they’ve accepted they both exist, but it does create a lot of confusion.


Werman: You think about Flushing Meadows in New York City, site of the US Open, center court is “Arthur Ashe Stadium.” Is there anybody in France saying, “You know, maybe we ought to rethink the name of our court here for the French Open and name it after a famous French tennis player.”


Clarey: Well, the stadium’s name is Roland Garros, so the whole concept is called Roland Garros, which I guess in the US now would be equivalent with the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. So, Roland Garros is their Billie Jean King. But Arthur Ashe, which is the name of the main court at the US Open, the equivalent here is Philippe Chatrier Court, and Philippe Chatrier was actually an administrator, president of the French Tennis Federation and International Tennis Federation. So, in the US we go for players and in France they go for administrators.


Werman: So Christopher, tomorrow the women’s final, Serena Williams against Lucie Safarova. Are the French kind of tired seeing Serena Williams all the time?


Clarey: Selena has come a long way in the French estimation. Her coach is French now, she speaks very passable, respectable French--takes a lot guts.


Werman: Takes a lot of guts to do that in Paris, too.


Clarey: Yeah. All her on-court interviews now are pretty much done in French. So, I wouldn’t say she’s the most popular of all champions here, but I think she is increasingly appreciated and respected.


Werman: Certainly got her skills together on clay.


Clarey: Christopher Clarey, reporter with the New York Times speaking with me from Paris. Thank you very much.


Werman: You bet.