French Open

Paris honours Roland Garros

2014-06-06 17:00

Paris - His name is better known in connection with the exploits of Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg, but Roland Garros excelled in a world thousands of feet above the clay-covered courts of Paris which bear his name.

There will be no shortage of militaristic language used to accompany this weekend's French Open finals, but battle was no metaphor for Garros, an expert aviator who has become famous for his bravery.

He even fought for his country in World War I, before he lost his own battle with death a day short of his 30th birthday.

Yet, for most outside of France, the details of Garros's life are largely unknown, a fact which drove the French Tennis Federation (FFT) to open an exhibition detailing his life, alongside which sits a special exhibition to mark the centenary anniversary of World War I.

In the idyllic setting of the "Muse de la FFT" at Roland Garros stadium in the leafy western outskirts of Paris, "Front Lines: Tennis in 1914-18" tells the story of 12 tennis champions, whose lives, like Garros', became entwined with the Great War.

As well as wanting to mark a century since the war began, the FFT's museum curator Michael Guittard, said it was important that people knew the true story of Roland Garros.

"For many people, Roland Garros is a tournament, it's a stadium, some people think he was a tennis champion, even the president of the FFT!

"We want people to know who Roland Garros is because he is, quite simply, a hero."

Born on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion in 1888, Garros became a notorious flyer even before the war.

In his memoirs, he wrote that he "believed in his vocation from the earliest age" and while he never achieved his dream of flying with his body as his "sole resource," Garros overcame pneumonia at the age of 11 to achieve the levels of fame which resulted in the modern day complex in Paris bearing his name.

Prior to his wartime exploits, when he was credited with downing four enemy planes, Garros gained a fierce reputation.

"He is the unrivaled king of the air, the Champion of Champions, who honours French aviation," one 1912 report claimed.

A year later, he outdid himself, recording probably his greatest peacetime achievement when he became the first man to fly across the Mediterranean Sea.

Not content with just flying, however, the pilot turned his hand to engineering during the war and was responsible for developing a revolutionary way of firing his machine gun through a plane's propeller arc.

Nevertheless, not even all his expertise could prevent the clogged fuel line which forced his crash landing behind enemy lines and subsequent imprisonment in April 1915.

Three years later, having rediscovered his love of sport and music, Garros eventually escaped, returning to Paris where he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur.

After returning to action, the crash which eventually defeated him just a few weeks before the end of the war remains an unsolved mystery.

At the time, it failed to make headlines, but appreciation of his genius has grown in the century since his death.

A statue was erected in his honour in 1925 and, while that statue is now in Reunion, today there are 58 roads and one stadium which ensure his name lives on.

Guittard described Roland Garros as a real life Indiana Jones, while in his book Jean Ajalbert claims the former pilot was a man "whose genius deserves to astound future generations."

Yet, perhaps the biggest compliment which can be paid to the expertise of Roland Garros is that, during war, none of his enemies ever claimed victory over him, a record even Nadal would be proud of.

Read more on:    french open  |  roland garros  |  tennis
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