At French Open, maintaining clay courts is a full-time job

By Jon Brand
Wednesday, June 2, 2010;

PARIS -- During the first rain delay of the French Open last week, most eyes were on defending champion Roger Federer as he walked off the Philippe Chatrier court to seek refuge from the downpour. Few saw Gérard Tiquet, the chief groundskeeper at Roland Garros, heading in the opposite direction.

Calmly but quickly, Tiquet and his team rolled out two green tarps over the playing surface and then covered the net. When the rain subsided 15 minutes later, they removed the tarps, revealing the brilliant red terre battue beneath.

Terre battue, which means "beaten earth" in French, is a mixture of crushed brick -- made of fired red clay -- and tile. It is a finicky surface that requires devoted attention to keep it in top shape. Rain, sun, extreme temperatures, players' feet and pigeons are all enemies.

Tiquet is responsible for the state of the tennis complex's 20 courts, a year-round position that continues well beyond the French Open, throughout the summer's various national competitions. He arrived at Roland Garros in 1993, fresh off raising trees at a large nursery outside of Paris. From the start, he has found the jobs analogous.

"Taking care of a garden and tending to terre battue, they both require the same type of work," Tiquet said before matches started last Thursday.

During the tournament, the workday is long. The crew -- which grows from 17 workers on the grounds to nearly 100 during the French Open -- arrives around 6 a.m. to uncover the courts and get them ready for the first matches at 11. Before and after each match, as well as between sets, they rush the court with meshed drag mats, erasing footprints and smoothing the clay. Brooms are used to clear the lines of terre battue.

Often during the day, workers spray down the courts with water, much like an infield crew would do before a baseball game. In the evening the courts are watered more heavily and covered so that they don't dry out and harden overnight. During the series of weather delays that plagued the tournament last week, the teams were tasked with keeping the courts dry. In addition to tarps, they use towels to pick up excess water, a task that hearkens back to an earlier era of groundskeeping in Paris.

"They didn't always have tarps; they used towels and brushes to try and dry the surface out," veteran tennis broadcaster Bud Collins said. "Or they would just wait."

Each court has a place for the grounds crew to rest; in the stadiums, they even have couches for naps.

Despite the extensive daily workload during the French Open, Tiquet said it's just routine touch-ups on the surface after months of preparation. The heavy lifting starts in April, when Tiquet and fellow groundskeepers drive large tractors onto the courts, hitch a harrow to the back of each one and break up the thick layer of white limestone normally hidden from sight by the dusting of crushed red brick.

Though tournament organizers say that the red layer is essential -- uncovered white limestone would blind players on sunny days -- it seems otherwise aesthetic, a nod to history.

About 130 years ago, the first clay tennis court was built in Cannes on the French Riviera. Ernest and William Renshaw, two English brothers who reigned during lawn tennis' first era, saw their newly built grass court yellowing in the Mediterranean sun and needed a quick solution.

They found some discarded terra cotta pots, crushed them into a fine powder and spread it directly over the grass. Despite some uneven bounces, the reddish surface was playable; the phenomenon spread around Europe, then the rest of the world.

Now the limestone, along with layers of large pebbles, gravel and a moisture-absorbing volcanic rock known as clinker, comprise the bulk of the playing surface. Just two millimeters of the red powder is added to each court.

"The topping is just for the comfort of the players, but we can't have too much," Tiquet said, "because it would make for an uneven surface and odd bounces."

After the courts are set, they are tested before the masses arrive for the French Open. This year, French stars Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet were among the professionals who stopped by Paris early to give Tiquet's work their stamp of approval.

"When they tell us that the courts are in good shape, that's the best moment," he said. "Because it's the worst if they tell us anything less than that."

The varied weather last week -- hot and sunny one day, cool with downpours the next -- prompted some players to gripe about the surface. "It's true that there's much less terre battue than normally," Frenchman Florent Serra said after a match in scorching temperatures, when the courts were playing fast.

Tiquet realizes he can't cater to every player's needs during the week; his main goal throughout the tournament is simply to maintain a consistent level of quality. If he can do that, without anyone or anything significantly damaging the courts, his job is done.

He is also content if he can take a break to watch a little bit of tennis between phone calls and rain delays. Tiquet says he has seen a lot of great matches over the years, but his favorite memory, unsurprisingly, involves the red surface.

When Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten won his third and final title at Roland Garros in 2001, he used his racket to draw a big heart in the clay and promptly fell backwards into it, spent.

Tiquet, watching from near his office underneath Philippe Chatrier, was touched.

"That will rest in my spirit forever," he said.

Then he went out and smoothed over Kuerten's handiwork.

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