Some days at work can be laborious and forgettable. Then there are days when you get a VIP invite to the French Open via Eurostar to watch a spot of tennis and sip champagne. It was an invitation that I’d taken approximately 0.2 seconds to accept, and had led to weeks of giddy anticipation. The only ‘work’ involved was to blog about my impressions and reflections of the day, upon which your possibly envious green eyes are now fixed.
I’ve been to Wimbledon twice and it’s obviously amazing, but the colour scheme consists entirely of different shades of green. Walking into Court Phillipe Chatrier at Roland Garros, the first thing you notice is the vista is full of contrasts. There’s the vivid burnt orange of the famous red dust, the turquoise hoardings around the courts (with advertising! Good Lord!), the red uniforms of the line judges, the bright tangerine and white of the ball boys and the uncluttered blue of the Parisian sky.
Wimbledon is about venerability and tradition; the clientele is principally wobbly middle class housewives with union jacks daubed on their cheeks. For them, ‘style’ is something they just about manage to heave their legs over during a breathless weekend walk in the countryside. By contrast, the denizens of Paris are just as chic, sun-kissed and bejewelled as you’d expect them to be, many probably whisked first class from similarly elite air-kissing whirlwinds at the Cannes Film Festival or Monte Carlo Grand Prix.
Myself, I’d been ‘whisked’ from Leeds via an overnight stop on my cousin’s sofa in Crouch End, north London. His cat woke me up at 2am. My alarm went off at 5.15am. Complimentary breakfast on the 7am Eurostar helped ease the fatigue though, and I was set for a magnificent day out.
Our hosts, one of whom led us from the front gate to Orange’s VIP sponsor’s lounge, consisted almost entirely of impeccably stunning young waitresses and hostesses. Edouard Austin, my companion from the live Orange blog, and I had an immediate, obligatory glass of champagne, a few ‘amuse bouches’, and headed out to sample the atmosphere.
The concourses and corridors are an explosion of colour and activity. A glamorous TV reporter did a piece to camera beside us, there was a makeshift beach for playing beach tennis and volleyball and spectators lounged about (smoking, of course, as this is Paris) watching matches on the big screens or roamed the outside courts.
Richard Williams, the eccentric father of Serena and Venus, brushed past us just outside the players’ entrance to Court Suzanne Lenglen.
We watched some kids of about nine years old try out a serve speed gun machine. Despite being about four foot tall, some of the talented little blighters had clearly played tennis before and were reaching speeds of around 120kph. Edouard and I decided not to queue up for a try for fear of embarrassment.
We observed an attractive female player, whose name we never discovered, practising with two coaches. They fired balls at her to bash back over the net. This was during the hottest part of the day, but relentlessly they rallied, sending her scurrying all over the baseline, panting for breath. It was a reminder that, although this is a jolly day out for us, this event is the culmination of hours and hours of lonely, shattering preparation for those who provide the entertainment.
I took my seat to watch the last few games of German waif Dinah Pfizenmaier being thrashed 6-1 6-1 by world No.1 Victoria Azarenka. The Australian Open champion’s fist pumps and exaggerated yelping (even for drop shots) didn’t endear me to her greatly, and it was with relish I awaited the start of Roger Federer v Adrian Ungur.
I’d never seen Federer in the flesh before and it’s now something I’ll be able to tell the grandchildren about. Not only that, but I saw him on the day he broke Jimmy Connors’ record of 234 wins in Major tournaments.
By all accounts, the Swiss genius was not at his best. Ungur, the world No.92 from Romania, competed valiantly in some terrific rallies and even took the third set on a tie-break. The 2009 champion stumbled through eventually in four, but even if it hadn’t been a polished performance, I have now seen ‘that’ backhand and the legend himself.
Following a spot of lunch, we visited the blessedly air-conditioned, underground Roland Garros museum. Highlights included Bjorn Borg’s shirt and headband, and a collection of each year’s official tournament poster dating back to the 70s. This, from 1984, was my favourite.
And here’s yours truly in front of the gallery of past champions.
We roamed the outside courts in the unrelenting afternoon sun. I was amazed at the proximity between the crowd and the players. We could virtually have leaned over and tapped them on the shoulder as they sat down between games. We lingered slightly longer than necessary to watch these two. I can’t imagine why.
I returned to Court Phillip Chatrier to watch home favourite Gilles Simon in a terrific match with promising American upstart Brian Baker. The Frenchman blew a two-set lead, unable to read Baker’s continual drop shots. He pulled it out the bag in the fifth, to a stirring roar from the packed crowd. I’d barely considered Simon before today, thinking him among the ranks of pretty harmless, mid-ranking tour players. But watching him live, it’s clear he has an engaging game and personality. I’ll be keeping a closer eye on him from now on.
Before I knew it, it was time to go. A few gifts, a complimentary bottle of posh sun cream, a final double kiss from one of the flawless hostesses and I was away. Back to the Gard du Nord, and thence to London, a second night on that sofa and that damned cat. A wonderful blur of a day – a little eight-hour, behind-the-glass glimpse into the most stylish stop on the world tennis tour.