Tennis / Roger and Me at the French Open

‘You played excellently,’ I told Federer. ‘Thank you,’ he replied. My first visit to the Forbidden City of top players.

Image number one: In episode three of the eighth season of Seinfeld, George finds himself guest of honor at a raunchy party full of models. “You’ve got no idea,” he excitedly tells Jerry. “I’ve got an entry ticket to the Forbidden City.”

That’s more or less how I felt when I first entered the press center of the Roland Garros Stadium on the outskirts of Paris. “I’m in the Forbidden City,” I reported to my wife, who at the time was out strolling through the city’s streets. “You’ve no idea − everyone’s here! Serena’s on the court right now, and after her Federer! After that I want to watch Ferrer’s and Venus’s matches. We can’t meet for lunch as planned. See you at 10 tonight.”

Image number two: In David Evan’s film “Fever Pitch” ‏(based on the book by Nick Hornby‏), Paul Ashworth, the 9-year-old central character, climbs into the stands of his beloved Arsenal soccer club’s Highbury Stadium for the first time in his life. The moment he sees the shining green grass, the stands filled with supporters, the team scarves ruffling in the wind, and hears the fans’ chants rising, his eyes glow with amazement. The introverted, grumbling boy finds himself a new love. That, more or less, is how I felt when I first entered the Roland Garros Stadium press box.

The stands weren’t as full as at Highbury − after all, it’s still the first round and the big names aren’t playing each other yet − but for all that, for the average sports fan used to watching tennis on television, it was a heartwarming sight. The reddish-brown clay surface looked wonderful. The skies above Paris were greyish-blue with but a few clouds, the stands were neat and clean, and every now and then a shout in French would split the air. All these made me realize that a refreshing experience awaited. “These coming days are going to be fun,” I told myself. And they were.

‘Been there, done that’

Imagine you meet Prince William and ask him: “Tell me − what’s it like to live in Windsor Castle with all those servants attending you, with the grand balls and the women’s strange hats?” He’d probably reply dismissively: “It’s nothing. Been there, done that.”

That, I imagine, is how the veteran sports reporters feel after they have attended so many events featuring the world’s most inspiring athletes. The Olympic Games? World Cup? World Athletics Championships? The Euro? The Final Four? Been there, done that. They’ve already seen it all. They aren’t excited − certainly not by the first round of a Grand Slam tournament.

But for me, who arrived at the Roland Garros more as a fan than a journalist, the excitement was incredible. The great tennis stars − Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Serena, Venus, Sharapova − are like rock stars. They’re on their own planet. Most of the world’s population will never see them play “live” on court.

Even the second-tier players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet are stars in their own right. To watch all these idols working and sweating in real life, only a few meters from me, was a cleansing experience.

But I was no mere fan having to settle for what his eyes could see from the stands, which he bought a ticket for. No way − I had a ticket to the Forbidden City! I could, with my press accreditation, hop from court to court, from stand to stand, to check out the tennis center from all angles. When the sun climbs high I can dip into a shaded stand, and as the sun sets I can take a seat lower down. When I get tired from turning my head left to right, right to left, I can move over to a seat behind one of the players. And when I feel like a coffee I can take myself to the closest press cafeteria and order an espresso and sandwich ‏(though at an exorbitant price‏).

And this is before I talk about the most basic needs. The line for the toilets outside the center court is liable to be frustrating − sometimes it’s long enough to miss a whole set, especially in the first round. But journalists and photographers don’t have to mix with the common people. They are like the royal family. They have separate conveniences close to the court. At most, you miss a game or two at the beginning of a set.

But the highlight is, of course, the press conferences that take place after every match. “Your attention please,” the emcee announces in the press center. “Mr. Federer will be in interview room number one at 5:15 P.M.”

After I had watched a few matches of high-quality tennis, I headed for interview room number one. I had one mission left to complete − seeing Federer up close. Very close. Five to 10 meters. And if I manage it, I may even get to touch him. Sure − I’m a veteran journalist ‏(albeit in a completely different field‏) and I’m not supposed to get excited by such stupidities like the fans do. I’m not a child anymore. But what can I do? Deep inside I’m still like 9-year-old Paul Ashworth who has just met the Divine Spirit in person: Roger Federer in real life. Maybe the excitement will pass by my tenth Grand Slam tournament. I hope not.

Meeting the man

I spent much of the press conference trying to photograph Federer with my smartphone without the burly press inspectors throwing me out. Toward the end of the press conference Roger ‏(you don’t mind me calling him by his first name‏) was to be interviewed in French, Dutch and maybe Spanish. I didn’t really listen. About half the journalists in the room got up and left, and I took advantage of the situation to improve my location. I went to the last row, positioned myself alongside another photographer, pulled out my Canon and began to snap. I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to, and for some reason nobody stopped me.

When Roger began to be interviewed for some German TV station, I moved toward the exit door and waited patiently. The interview over, Roger made his way toward me. The moment he approached I thrust out my hand to shake his. He had no choice; after all, he’s a classy gentleman, both on and off the court.

“You played excellently today,” I told him. “Thank you very much,” he replied, and rushed for the door. I was in the clouds. My brave journalistic mission had been achieved.

In the following two days I wanted to perform a similar exercise on Rafa ‏(Nadal‏) and Novac ‏(Djokovic‏), but this time the press inspectors were sharper. I was forced, like a regular tennis fan, to suffice with a different experience that included wonderful tennis, played in this wonderful city at this wonderful time of year.

Now a small tip: You don’t have to be a journalist to enjoy a Grand Slam tournament. The most refined Roland Garros experience is found on the smaller courts, where the common fans gather. This is where you’ll get the real, authentic experience. This is where you get to see the world’s top tennis players up close. This is where every fan can connect with the players and other fans from his or her country, who speak the same language, call out chants of encouragement.

Mark the date: The end of May 2014, in Paris. Buy your tickets well in advance, because they are difficult to get ahold of later. On June 24 another Grand Slam tournament begins at Wimbledon. 

AP