Tennis scores an ace with French

DREAM of a Paris springtime, the sumptuous cuisine in a sun-drenched Left Bank bistro, the fashion-watching on the Faubourg St. Honor'e -- and the French Open's world-class tennis. For the tourist, the tennis may be superfluous. For the French, though, it comes first.

During the tourney, which ends June 9, everyone who is anyone troops out to the Bois de Boulogne, from Cabinet ministers to society queen R'egine, actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Monaco's royal family, the Grimaldis. With 256 of the world's top-ranked players hammering out long sets on the red clay courts of the Roland Garros stadium, all of Paris now asks, who needs strawberries at Wimbledon?

``Every year the tournament gets bigger,'' says Chris Evert Lloyd.

``There are definitely three biggies, Wimbledon, the US Open, and the French,'' adds Jimmy Connors. ``A lot of guys who love clay put the French above the other two.''

The 83-year-old Open has not always been so big. Only 10 years ago, it was a second-rate event. Prize money did not top $100,000. Attendance ran less than 90,000. Television ignored it, and some of the top players didn't hesitate to pass the tournament up in order to get additional practice playing on grass before the preeminent summer test in England.

``I remember playing here 10 years ago before only a few thousand spectators,'' recalls former men's champion Fred Stolle. ``Look at all this today. What a change!''

Stadium tickets now are sold out weeks in advance, and attendance this year is expected to reach 300,000. Prize money totals $2 million. French television provides match-by-match coverage -- one hour each morning, three in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Thanks to cable television, this year Americans also can watch the second week's matches live for the first time. NBC will broadcast the finals.

The world's best players, it seems, can no longer afford to pass up the tournament. Even John McEnroe, who has spent plenty of time complaining about the decorum of the crowds here, but has never won the event, reportedly spent the winter telling his confidants, ``I want to win at Roland Garros.''

By universal acclamation, credit for all these accomplishments goes to one man: Philippe Chatrier. He became president of the French Federation of Tennis in 1978 and quickly moved to modernize the Open.

``Everything was falling apart,'' Mr. Chatrier recalls. ``People thought that this tournament would continue to exist just because it always had existed. They weren't willing to invest in it or to promote it.''

Chatrier brought American-style commercialism to the tournament. He pursued television contracts. He persuaded corporate sponsors to build a ``tennis village'' similar to that at Wimbledon.

Proceeds from these contracts were used to add 15,000 more seats, 13 additional courts, and new locker rooms and restaurants. More than $2 million will be spent this year and next to build more courts, more seats, and more amenities.

Chatrier uses the money to pour on the French charm. Players are pampered. There are free hotels. Free transportation. Stylish parties. Great meals. Anyone else who is important to tennis, such as journalists and agents, is treated just as well.

``Philippe makes sure everyone has a wonderful time,'' says tennis impresario Teddy Tinling. ``There are no less than 10 parties in 14 nights and we only go to the most expensive places.''

Such success does not please everyone. Chatrier admits that some of his traditionalist French friends, as suspicious of money as ever, complain that the event has turned crass.

The crowds do push and shove. Salesmen do turn rude. And perhaps worst of all from the French perspective, sometimes the only thing left to eat is a stale sandwich.

``In some ways, the tournament has become more uncomfortable,'' admits Rex Bellamy, veteran tennis writer for The Times (London). ``But when I get hot, I just go and cool down at a caf'e. Where else can you do that?''

Indeed, despite the newfound bustle, Roland Garros feels like a Parisian boulevard. Caf'e tables are actually set up between courts, and plush restaurants adorn the ``village.'' In between are a row of boutiques, and the crowd dresses with style: Plain Levi's jeans aren't acceptable, only designer jeans do will do, perfectly pressed and stylishly cut.

``There's something warm about it,'' says Tinling. ``The flowing chestnut trees, the beautiful women, lunch in the Bois -- it's a legendary fascination.''

Amid the social swirl, the sport itself should not be overlooked. With its slow red-clay courts, the tournament offers the toughest physical test in tennis. Forget the slam-bang serve-and-volley tactics which will work on Wimbledon's grass or Flushing Meadow's hard courts. Games here are filled with long baseline rallies, and five set men's matches often last more than four hours.

``It can be the most exciting or the most boring tennis,'' says Bellamy of The Times. ``The surface lets a guy with little skill win by just keeping the ball in play. But it also lets a skillful player explore his entire repetoire.''

Until the tournament gained in stature, many American stars prefered to skip that challenge. Connors stayed away for a few years. McEnroe did too.

Now they are all back, but not all are winning. While steady European baseliners such as Bjorn Borg and more recently Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl racked up the men's titles, no American man has been champion since Tony Trabert won in 1955. ``I think it's because Americans are impatient,'' suggests Bellamy. ``They want quick results and can't last through the long matches.''

American women by contrast have done well: Billie-Jean King won in 72, Martina Navratilova won in 82-84, and Evert Lloyd has won five times since 1974.

Why do the women win? ``Perhaps you're more of a matriarchal society than I thought,'' he says.

Unscientific as that sounds, predictions are for similar results this year. On the woman's side, naturalized American Martina Navritalova is the favorite. If she slips, Mrs. Evert Lloyd should triumph.

But on the men's side, McEnroe represents the prime American contender.

Connors has never done well here and at age 33, he is considered too old for such a test of stamina. McEnroe made the finals last year, but lost in five sets to the methodical Czech Lendl.

Can he concentrate hard enough to turn himself into the proverbial American in Paris?

``He is the best player and he knows he needs to win here to reach the tennis Olympia,'' Chatrier says. ``He should win.''

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