Who was Roland Garros? Why is the Tennis Tournament Named After Him?

Who was Roland Garros? Why is the Tennis Tournament Named After Him?

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Roland Garros in 1910. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public domain

Parisians associate the name Roland Garros with the French national tennis tournament. The week-long fête’s formal name is Les International de France de Roland Garros. It occurs annually at Le Stade de Roland Garros, situated on the southern border of Le Bois de Boulogne, in the 16th arrondissement in the west of Paris. Who was Roland Garros, a famous tennis pro? No, his story is more interesting and romantic but largely unknown to most Parisians.

In doing research for a book, I came across Garros’s name in connection with the pioneer days of aviation. I quickly realized my knowledge of those long-ago airborne exploits was deficient. Once I published my book, I returned to the mysterious Monsieur Garros. His short life spanned le fin de siècle, the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the period leading up to World War I. The deeper I dove into the historical record, the more fascinating the subject became. Roland Garros’s story is a tale is worth the telling, so I decided to do just that.

A native of La Réunion island, Garros was at various times: a world class athlete, a professional bike racer, a lawyer (he failed the bar exam as he refused to learn Latin), a sports car salesperson (he operated a successful dealership at 5 Avenue de la Grande Armée near Place de l’Étoile), an accomplished pianist, and a self-taught pilot. He was fluent in English, spending several summers at a manor house across La Manche. Slender with black curly hair and a carefully trimmed mustache, he flashed dark, dark eyes.

Garros taught himself to fly in a bamboo airplane which he crashed, painfully, at Versailles. He was the first pilot to fly across the Mediterranean and he set world altitude records. A regular diner at Maxim’s during its glory years, Garros was once the toast of the town, that town being Paris and the toast being Champagne.

In 1914, he left Parisian café lifestyle and his gorgeous mistress, Marcelle Gorge, for the Great War, volunteering to fly for the newly-organized French Air Force. Soon after, Roland Garros became the first fighter pilot. In 1915 he and his mechanic constructed the world’s first fighter plane. Forced to land behind German lines, he spent nearly three years as a prisoner of war. Garros escaped, evaded his way across hostile Germany and returned to his beloved Paris.

Le Miroir celebrates the pilots Roland Garros and René Fonck. Public domain

Undoubtedly living out fantasies he entertained while a prisoner, Garros immersed himself in a torrid affair with exotic dancer Isadora Duncan. He played Chopin for her and she danced for him. One summer night in 1918, she twirled in a fountain on La Place de la Concorde. While she performed soaking wet in a thin silk dress, Garros sat on the basin’s stone rim and watched her intently with those ebony eyes.

Against all advice, as a moth to a candle, the no-longer-young pilot returned to his squadron in the autumn of 1918. He needed two more aerial victories to be anointed a flying ace. It did not go well for him.

Rafael Nadal playing at Roland Garros. Photo: Frédéric de Villamil/ Flickr

In the late 1920s, Emile Lesieur, a fellow fighter pilot who knew Garros from the French national Rugby team was charged with building a tennis center outside Paris for the Davis Cup matches. Lesieur named the stadium after his friend, who, Lesieur believed, had not been afforded the recognition he so richly deserved.

So, when you watch a French Open tennis match on TV or visit the center’s excellent restaurant or its more affordable brasserie, give a thought to the boulevardier who epitomized La Belle Epoque and who contributed much to early aviation. In doing my reading, I discovered Roland Garros excelled in many fields, but evidently tennis was not one of them. By all accounts he was an indifferent tennis player, using the sport mainly to meet women. His fame came in the air. Roland Garros’s short and fascinating life inspired me to tell his story in a biography, a book as rewarding to research as it was enjoyable to write. Now dear reader, you and I are more familiar with Roland Garros’s fascinating story than most Parisians who see his name on billboards, circular or otherwise, every May and June.

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Ed Cobleigh has been a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, Royal Air Force, and French Air Force. After his flying career, he was an Air Intelligence Officer, working with the CIA, FBI, and MI6. He has visited 50 countries and France 50 times. Now Ed and his wife Heidi live in California's wine country. His first book, War for the Hell of It, was an Amazon bestseller and his latest, The Pilot: Fighter Planes and Paris, is set in the City of Light. He is currently at work on a creative non-fiction biography of Roland Garros.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “The week-long fête’s formal name is Les International de France de Roland Garros. It occurs annually at Le Stade de Roland Garros in Boulogne-Billancourt on the southern border of Le Bois de Boulogne, just outside the City of Light.”

    Sorry to nitpick but this is wrong. You may have been misled by these sporting facilities being on the outer side of the Boulevard Peripherique (much of which is underground here) but it is all within the boundaries of Paris. Technically, legally, jurisdictionally the Bois de Boulogne including that corner which now has the tennis complex and the adjoining Parc des Princes (where some of the women’s world cup is being played), and the Piscine Molitor are part of the 16th arrondissement. It was Napoleon III who ceded it, along with the Bois de Vincennes, in 1852 to be formally part of Paris, and he took personal interest in its conversion into a great public park.

    Le Corbusier had his apartment here, on rue Nungesser et Coli, on the top floors of a block he designed. In fact this is probably as close to the edge of Paris as you can get and still be considered Parisian. Normally the boundaries run down the centre line of streets but here it appears to be on the western side of this street making Corbu’s address “just” in the 16th (there is no residential on the eastern side, it all being sporting facilities and Piscine Molitor).
    ………….
    Re Roland Garros, during the recent FO there was some online discussion that the name should be changed to Rafael Nadal! However, that is unlikely though eventually they may consider one of the main courts for that honorific. The only tiny doubt is that, as you explain, there is no tangible connection between the tennis site and the aviator, and there is little doubt that no one has more claim on the place than the conquering Spaniard.

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