The beauty of the new 5,000-capacity Court Simonne-Mathieu has always been evident. But it was only on the opening day of Roland-Garros 2019 that this enchanted garden could be seen in glorious full bloom.
Court Simonne-Mathieu's strong debut
First matches on RG's new greenhouse court include thriller plus wins for three favourites.
With the delicate music of string trio Airplay drifting through the sunlit morning air, earlybird spectators stroll along the walkway outside the exquisite Orangerie building, wandering into the café and boutique.
Approaching Court Simonne-Mathieu, they marvel at the quartet of contemporary glasshouses fringing the four sides of the arena, each a botanical hothouse of subtropical plants from Australia, Africa, South America or Asia. All spectators are presented with a chic commemorative linen tote to mark the occasion.
Taylor Townsend becomes the first player to deliver a competitive serve on the new court, against 2016 Roland-Garros champion Garbine Muguruza. High in the arena’s upper bleachers, it feels magically as if the entire court is suspended in the treetops, with just a glimpse of Court Philippe-Chatrier visible to the west, and the Eiffel Tower peeking through the eastern foliage.
A torpid set from Muguruza sees lefty Townsend inflict a break to love, to take the opening chapter 7-5. But the crisis is destined to pass quickly, as Muguruza’s misfiring backhand clicks into gear.
Outside on the western walkway bordering the court, artists Supakitch & Koralie are working on a huge canvas, using waterproof spray paint and stencils to create a graphic representation of the glasshouse gardens, in the signature Roland-Garros colours of terracotta, green and white.
The first-ever win on Court Simonne-Mathieu belongs to Muguruza, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, via a delicious drop shot on her fourth match point.
“It’s cool to be the first player on this court,” says Muguruza. “It has a different feeling, like in a garden. It’s a very cute court – not small, but cosy.”
Bernard Giudicelli, president of the French Tennis Federation, leads the official inauguration of the new court. He pays tribute to Simonne Mathieu’s triumphs in the singles, doubles and mixed doubles of Roland-Garros 1938, along with her repeat singles win the following year; and also to her courageous service during World War II.
The ceremony concludes with a live performance by 15 musicians of a specially-commissioned piece by Thomas Roussel.
Marco Cecchinato and Nicolas Mahut arrive for the first men’s singles match on the new court. With the Italian seeded 16th and wildcard Mahut ranked 253, on paper this one looks simple. But seven of Cecchinato’s eight previous forays in to Grand Slam main draws have resulted in immediate defeat, the only exception being his run to the semi-finals here last year, where he eclipsed Novak Djokovic in the last eight.
Doubles specialist Mahut, who lives literally metres from Roland-Garros, has the crowd with him. But Cecchinato strides away with the first set. He only just edges the second, but looks on for a rare opening round win.
Meanwhile on the terrace just to the north of Mathieu, grounds pass holders are lounging in deckchairs and on beanbags, nibbling on lunchtime crepes, eyes fixed on a big screen showing Roger Federer live on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
Mahut is wasting no energy on regrets about losing that tight second set. Thrillingly he captures the third set as the packed crowd chants: “Nico! Nico!”
After a faultless fourth chapter, Mahut delivers a sizzling attack in the decider to topple the 16th seed 2-6, 6-7(6), 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. It’s another very bad day at the Grand Slam office for Cecchinato.
“I will remember being the first man to win on this court,” says Mahut. “With the plants and the windows, it’s beautiful.”
As he walks back to the player locker rooms beneath Chatrier, he is greeted by compatriot Gael Monfils heading the other way to support girlfriend Elina Svitolina in her match on Mathieu against Venus Williams.
Svitolina breaks serve four times to take the opening set, moving encouragingly well considering her lingering knee injury. Williams, now just weeks from her 39th birthday, is carrying a litany of niggles. Maybe they contributed to her 18 unforced first-set errors.
Meanwhile, the BBC is raving about the new court. “It feels like you're a wedding guest in the idyllic Dordogne countryside,” writes their reporter Alex Bysouth.
In light drizzle, Svitolina wraps up her first clay win of the year 6-3, 6-3. “The court is very, very nice. It’s beautiful," she says. "I think people are enjoying it.”
Three times David Goffin has lost Grand Slam matches to players ranked as low as today’s opponent, No.72 Ricardas Berankis. But after a 24-minute first-set bagel, defeat is looking unlikely this time for the No.27 seed.
Berankis actually won their most recent encounter in Doha this year, but Goffin rattles through this one 6-0, 6-2, 6-2.
Spectators pour out of the arena, past the now-complete artwork by Supakitch & Koralie. The first day in Court Simonne-Mathieu’s competitive history is done.