Not often is a sports stadium named after an administrator, but the Philippe Chatrier Court at the Stade Roland Garros is there because of the man whose name it carries, a man who was possibly the most influential tennis administrator of the last century.
The stadium is made of concrete, steel and glass. Chatrier certainly had steel in his spine and he gazed through the glass with great perspicacity, but concrete was in no way reflective of his mind or his soul.
The Frenchman was a moody, brooding, sensitive, inspiring and clever visionary. He changed the face of French tennis, and together with his great friend Jack Kramer, he left his mark on the international game.
He was also an astute politician who knew how to deal with the little fiefdoms and jealousies that have always beleaguered the administration of the game in France and he knew how to deal with the French Government. When he asked President Georges Pompidou for $14 million to buy more land for Roland Garros in the early 1970s, he got it.
Born on 2 February 1926, Chatrier, small and quick, soon showed an aptitude for tennis in his youth and, after winning the French junior title, he was named a reserve player on the French Davis Cup squad, later becoming captain. Naturally gregarious and fluent in English, Chatrier became good friends with many of the amateur players struggling to make any kind of a legal living on the tour in the days before ‘open’ tennis.
In 1953, he developed a power base of his own through the founding of his magazine Tennis de France. His editorials made clear his dissatisfaction with the way the game was being run and his vision for the future.
He met Jack Kramer, the great American promoter who had kept the pro game alive in the 1950s by signing up one Wimbledon champion after another, and heard about his attempts to get rid of the absurd situation whereby top amateur players were receiving under-the-counter payments to stay amateur.
Like many who wanted to see tennis flourish, Chatrier became frustrated when one attempt to create ‘open’ tennis after the next was blocked by amateur federation officials who were scared stiff of losing their perks and prestige.
Kramer got as far as having lunch with Jean Borotra, a popular member of the Four Musketeers who had won innumerable Grand Slam titles for France before World War Two and who had become president of the French Tennis Federation. Borotra, a flamboyant personality with a sharp mind, was sympathetic to Kramer’s suggestions but said he could never get enough regional presidents in France to vote for ‘open’ tennis.
French tennis consists of a collection of regions, each with its own power base and nothing can be achieved if you don’t get them on your side. Chatrier realised this and hatched a plot.
In 1968, he persuaded his friend, the amiable Marcel Bernard who had won the French title in 1946, to run for the presidency when Borotra retired. ‘You’ll win easily and then you can keep the seat warm for me,’ said Chatrier. ‘It will give me time to travel around and try to educate the regional presidents.’
Chatrier, with his natural charm and quick tongue, was very persuasive, and when Bernard’s term ended he won the presidency easily. He immediately began a massive modernisation of tennis in France.
‘Once I had my elephants in line, there were fewer problems,’ he used to laugh, referring to the regional presidents who he respected as solid citizens but whose speed of thought and movement did not match his own.
Although he had always championed the players’ cause, Chatrier became torn when the inevitable confrontation between amateur officialdom and the increasingly militant professionals came to a head with the Wimbledon boycott of 1973. The advent of Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis in America also strained relations when Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and other top stars signed up to play in the summer months.
The WTT playing schedule left a gap for Wimbledon but not the French Open, so Borg’s six title-winning years were interrupted in 1976 & ’77 when he did not play. Earlier, Chatrier had revealed the stubborn, pugnacious side of his nature by refusing to allow Connors to play during the most successful year of his career (1974) even though he had arranged his schedule so that he could play in Paris. He had signed with WTT and Chatrier refused him entry.
Apart from his work in France and many years as president of the Men’s International Tennis Professional Council, Chatrier’s battle to get tennis back into the Olympics became a major part of his life’s work. Hiring the tennis writer David Gray as his Secretary General, the pair set about persuading the International Olympic Committee, of which Chatrier became a member in 1988, to allow tennis entry as an exhibition sport at Los Angeles in 1984 and rejoin as a full medal sport after 64 years’ exile at Seoul in 1988.
One particularly visible change Chatrier brought to the Stade Roland Garros was the acquisition of several rugby pitches on which Court Suzanne Lenglen eventually opened in 1994, where numerous other courts now stand. Centralising training for France’s top players, he had indoor courts built so the site could become a year-round headquarters with all the required facilities. The complex doubled in size, and the number of courts has grown from eight to 23.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Chatrier began to suffer from Alzheimer’s and a brilliant mind was dimmed. He died from the disease in June 2000, having left an indelible mark on the sport he loved.