PARIS — Wednesday would have been an ideal day for a roof over the French Open’s center court.
The other three Grand Slam tournaments all have this option, but at Roland Garros there was no way to complete the rain-interrupted men’s quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Diego Schwartzman on center court as scheduled.
The cavalry is on the way, however, set to bring a new retractable roof planned for the center court by 2020 — though it might not be fully operational until 2021.
What most tennis fans, and French Open competitors, do not realize is just how complex the process will be. Roland Garros is not simply putting a roof on the existing center-court stadium, named for Philippe Chatrier, the former International Tennis Federation president.
It is demolishing and rebuilding the majority of the existing structure and only then putting the roof in place.
Jourdan was speaking on Wednesday in a corner office filled with vintage tennis photographs, a scale model of the future Chatrier Court and a huge blueprint of the overall, 350 million-Euro renovation project that will leave virtually nothing intact from the original 1928 stadium complex.
Jourdan’s office will be completely empty in less than two weeks and should no longer exist by the end of July. It is set to be demolished along with the entirety of the Borotra Tribune, the western grandstand of the rectangular Chatrier Court.
“I’m not concerned for myself or my future,” said Jourdan, who first began working at Roland Garros in 1977. “I’m 70 years old. I’ve seen everything here. But I’m so attached to this stadium that I want to do this project well and do it justice. That’s what is keeping me from sleeping.”
Officials at Wimbledon and the United States Open already have experienced this angst, adding roofs to existing center courts and modernizing their sites while still attempting to stage their annual tournament — and cash cow — on schedule and in style.
But Roland Garros is pushing the envelope with this project considering how much there is to be done — and undone — before the 2019 French Open.
Preparatory work has already been completed in the last two years: The first two rows of seats in the loge section inside the Chatrier Court were ripped up after last year’s tournament so a concrete wall measuring 40 meters long and 20 meters deep could be put in place to support the future construction.
“If you’d been here in the month of January you would have said, ‘They’re nuts. They’re not going to make it in time,’” Jourdan said.
But as you watched fans in those rows while Nadal and Schwartzman exchanged blows on Wednesday, you would have never known all that lay buried beneath them. Nor would you know that 25 massive building pillars already have been sunken into place elsewhere.
“If you didn’t do all that, you cannot do the rest we need to do in 10 months — impossible,” Jourdan said.
Ninety years later, the pressure is back on with such a similarly tight schedule.
“They’ll be working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week, and for three months at night as well,” Jourdan said. “There can’t be too harsh a winter. We can’t have strikes like there are so often in our country.
“There are many possible problems, but we do have Plans B. We can’t be missing an entire grandstand but if we’re missing 1,000 seats because we have not quite finished, it will not be a catastrophe for one year.”
The work will begin even before Sunday, when the men’s final is scheduled to be played; Jourdan is very much hoping that match is not pushed to Monday with rain in the forecast.
This weekend, French federation employees based in Chatrier will be emptying their offices. On Monday, about 100 workers are set to arrive and sort through all the furniture and material, determining what is to be saved and stored. Another 100 workers will start dismantling the 15,000 seats in Center Court, which will be replaced with wider seats in the new stadium.
Then, in July, the demolition process will begin. Five cranes will be used, including one on the surface of the court itself. “It won’t be as heavy as the other cranes, and they’ll use a special protection,” Jourdan said.
In one phase, as they dig deep to lay the foundations of a new subterranean office complex, the center court will be exposed down to its deepest foundations on one side, resembling some sort of red-clay altar.
The reconstruction work, which will be extensive on three of the four grandstands, must be completed in time for the tournament to begin on May 26, 2019. By then, nostalgia will have taken a big hit: no more ivy-covered walls and a much fewer of the St. Andrew’s crosses that are a major design feature of the current stadium (first used because they made the concrete walls lighter and cheaper by creating gaps).
“The plan is to finish with the last crane by the third week of April,” Jourdan said. “It’s not like we don’t have just a few things to do after that.”
The roof itself — made up of 11 wings of canvas-bound steel — will be put in place between the 2019 and 2020 editions of the tournament. Chatrier’s first-ever night sessions are scheduled to start in 2021, not 2020, just in case the roof is not quite ready. LED lights will eventually be installed on all the courts, and Jourdan hopes the lights will be on retractable poles that will slowly rise from the ground as night falls and then return to earth during the day.
The roof over Chatrier will not completely seal off the stadium from the elements: When closed, there will still be a two-meter gap between the cover and the top of the stadium.
“It’s not a roof; it’s an umbrella,” Jourdan said. “It’s open on the sides. The U.S. Open’s roof is completely closed. Wimbledon’s is completely closed. They have to put on ventilation systems when they close it, and they had problems in the beginning with the humidity and the grass.
Leave it to the French to conceptualize a stadium roof in this manner: Spectators in the top few rows might even get a little wet if the wind is blowing the wrong way during a rainstorm.
And leave it to the French to build a tennis court inside an existing botanical garden. The renovation project includes a long-delayed 5,000-seat, semi-sunken court surrounded on all four sides by glass greenhouses that is nearing completion. I can confirm, after visiting it in the rain and mud on Wednesday, that it will be the most avant-garde show court in professional tennis, and one of the most intimate.
The court is part of the plan to provide much more foliage and elbow room at a tournament that is now far too crowded, but when the court is finished before the 2019 French Open, it will also make for quite a hike from one end of the new Roland Garros to the other: Nearly 1,000 yards.
Will there be Segways available?
“You are going to buy good shoes,” Jourdan said with a chuckle.
The essential thing, of course, is that Roland Garros buys itself a way to keep playing tennis on days like Wednesday.