June 1, 2019 / 4:09 PM / 15 days ago

French Open bids adieu to much-loved 'Bullring'

PARIS (Reuters) - Few showcourts draw crowds as close to the thunderous power of modern-day tennis as Roland Garros’ ‘Bullring’, a brutalist-but-adored concrete arena that on Saturday is due to host its final singles match before being razed.

Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - June 1, 2019. Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka in action during his third round match against Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Inside this gladiatorial arena, legends have been born, top-seeds undone - and even shorts pulled down.

It was in the Bullring that Mary Joe Fernandez in 1993 blew apart Gabriela Sabatini’s 6-1 5-1 lead to win 10-8 in the third set; where the unseeded Gustavo Kuerten stunned Thomas Muster in the third round in 1997 on his way to an unexpected Grand Slam title; and where Marat Safin memorably dropped his shorts in 2004 after winning an extraordinary point against Felix Mantilla.

There are prettier courts at Roland Garros, including the curved stands of the Court Suzanne-Lenglen which dislodged the Bullring as Roland Garros’s second-biggest showcourt. But none delivers the up-close drama of the 1970s-designed Bullring.

“It’s so much smaller, more intimate,” said American tennis fan Stefan Henryson, waiting in line to enter the court with his wife and two daughters. “We come here for the experience. And it’s accessible for folks without showcase tickets who can’t see the Nadals and the Serena Williams.”

For its swansong tournament, the Bullring is open to holders of tickets for the outside courts. But it still draws big-name players in the first week and rarely suffers the lunchtime exodus of the Philippe Chatrier centre court.

SPECTATORS’ LAWN

In short, it is a court for the real tennis fan.

On Saturday, beads of sweat rolling off the forehead of Stan Wawrinka were visible to spectators in the front rows. Linesmen stood in the line of fire, so close to the player returning serve that they often had to duck out the way of a swinging racket.

It is, though, the sound of balls ricocheting off strings and the roar of the crowd that is so immediate in the Bullring; even the faintest mutter of despondency carries to the stands.

Yet it is time for the 3,800-seat Bullring to make way for a spectators’ lawn, not unlike Wimbledon’s Henman Hill, as the French Tennis Federation reinvents the compact layout of Roland Garros.

New to this year’s tournament is the serene Simonne Mathieu court, sunken into the ground and surrounded by greenhouses in the adjacent botanical gardens. It is now nearly a 15-minute walk from one end of the grounds to the other.

Still, nostalgia weighed heavily around the Bullring on Saturday.

“It’s a pity they’ll tear it down,” said Lucasz Przyblowcz of Poland, looking up at the court’s plant-covered drab exterior. “It’s beautiful in its ugliness.”

America’s Amanda Anisimova’s third-round tie against Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu on Saturday evening is the court’s final scheduled singles match, organisers said. Doubles matches will be played on it during the second week, before the demolition teams move in.

Not everyone, however, will be sorry to see the Bullring go.

“It’s a fun court above all. It’s a very personal court but I’ve had so many tough battles out there which I’ve lost,” Dimitrov told reporters after his defeat to Wawrinka.

“This court has been a love-hate relationship (for me) through the years. I’m pretty happy it’s not going to be here next year.”

Reporting by Richard Lough; editing by Tony Lawrence

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