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Sports

French Open courts glory of Simonne Mathieu

media Court Simonne-Mathieu will be the third largest stadium at the French Open in Paris. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Beneath the steel and the concrete lies the clay. Tonnes of the stuff are scattered about Court Simonne-Mathieu. From 26 May, some of the world's best tennis players will slide, sweat, scowl, simper and celebrate on the surface.

The newest court at the Roland Garros stadium - the venue for the French Open - was officially inaugurated just as the early spring sunshine flashed across Paris.

On a parcel of land developed as botanical gardens on the orders of Louis XV in the late 18th century, noblesse oblige.

The former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, shared jokes with the former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, and his successor Anne Hidalgo.

They were the troika of politicans who had cleared the path for the controversial renovation of the site holding the 19th century greenhouses - the Serres d'Auteuil.

Simonne Mathieu's grandson, Bertrand Mathieu, was also in the throng of dignitaries to hear paens to a relation who claimed two French Open singles titles among her cluster of 13 Grand Slam crowns placing her second on France's all-time winners list behind Suzanne Lenglen.

Mathieu went on to play a prominent role in the French resistance during the second world war.

Fight

It was a battle to realise the development of the site on the western fringe of Paris. Years of court hearings pitted the advocates of change against fearful environmental and residents' groups.

"When you put your foot in a garden in the middle of Paris, you have a lot of people against you," said Marc Mimram, the court's architect.

"Our challenge was to create a sporting facility in relationship with a specific situation: a garden in the middle of Paris. We tried to make Court Simonne-Mathieu more open and more fluid."

The 5,000 seat stadium - the third largest at Roland Garros behind Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen - is sunk below the ground.

The corridors around the court are filled with more than 1,000 plants from all corners of the planet and will be open to the public from 21 June.

"We were not in an abstract situation," Mimram added. "We had to be in dialogue with the historical side of things. But everything was there in terms of the old buildings and the boxed gardens and it all gave us a great opportunity to make a new project."

The decision as to which players will grace the court for its opening match is yet to be made. Mimram, though, says he hopes to be in situ for the occasion.

"I asked the president of the tennis federation to invite us for the first high level match. It will be exciting to be inside the ground."

Development

The 2019 French Open singles finals on 8 and 9 June will be played on Court Philippe Chatrier in front of nearly 15,000 spectators. In two years, Chatrier will also have a new look in the shape of a retractable roof allowing matches to be played even in the rain.

The development will put Roland Garros on a par with Centre Court at Wimbledon, the Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open and Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open.

Late by comparison with the other Grand Slam tournaments, the French Open, in one aspect, has stolen a conceptual march on its counterparts.

"The modern city should be a mixed city," said Mimram. "It shouldn't be sport on one side, living accommodation on the other side and work on another side.

"With Court Simonne Mathieu we show that it is possible to have a mix between historic and modern and a mix between sport and nature."

Mimram added: "I imagine that one day soon a young kid will come to see the gardens with his parents and will suddenly see the stadium and say: 'That's where I want to be a champion in 20 years."

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