PARIS — The French Open’s red clay is so iconic that boutiques on the tournament grounds sell souvenir vials of it — actually, finely ground red brick — in commemorative cylinders for 20 euros apiece (roughly $23).
But for generations of tennis pros who have competed on the world’s most famed clay courts, it’s impossible not to end up coated in the red-brick dust for free after two or three hours spent sweating, slipping and sliding from one corner of the court to another.
And this, for decades, has made the question of laundry at the French Open a pressing concern.
Seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert was regarded as the Queen of Clay for her dominance on the surface, as well as the embodiment of femininity in her pretty white dresses. Credit her mother, Colette, who traveled with her daughter in the early days of her pro career and hand-washed her socks and undergarments in the hotel room sink.
“God love her!” Evert recalls. “That was when dry cleaning was expensive, and we weren’t living extravagantly or staying in five-star hotels. I remember her scrubbing the socks. Sometimes she would find a laundromat in the beginning. And when I started making better money, we sent it out.”
These days, however, free laundry service is among the many perks accorded the tennis pros who earn a spot in the French Open. And for champions who also serve as high-profile models for tennis apparel manufacturers, such as Roger Federer (Uniqlo) and Rafael Nadal (Nike), looking spotless is an imperative — if not during matches, despite multiple shirt changes, then in post-match victory ceremonies, when they invariably don a fresh shirt or jacket to model the label to best effect.
At the French Open, players need only put their dirty match clothes in a bag that’s tagged with their name, drop it in a bin and get their “blanchisserie” delivered to the locker room the next day.
“You just give your laundry to the ladies in the locker room, and they take care of it,” Germany’s Andrea Petkovic said. “And it comes back perfectly folded and perfectly clean. I don’t know how they do it, but they do a really good job!”
What’s the French Open’s secret to getting clay out of tennis attire? Does it use everyday laundry powder? A bristle brush? Bleach? Does it have a confidential laundering recipe, guarded with the care Carthusian monks take in making the famous French liqueur, chartreuse, from an unknown blend of botanical sources?
“Je né sais pas,” said the charming Celeste, who supervises the myriad special services the French Open provides its competitors. She does not know, she explained, because players’ laundry is outsourced to a private company that collects it twice daily, at 1 and 7 p.m., and returns it at 2 p.m. the following day.
At 31, the 69th-ranked Petkovic is old enough to appreciate this perk. She remembers sitting for hours at coin-operated laundromats waiting for her tennis outfits to come clean as she climbed the ranking as a young pro.
Former pro Patrick McEnroe has his own laundry tales to air — memories of an era before Grand Slam tournaments started one-upping one another in player perks. He remembers feeling, as a young player, that having red clay on his socks was a badge of honor. There was something undeniably cool about having fresh, clean socks with smudges of dirt.
But the first time he had to do wash overseas, traveling on his own to a junior tournament, he made the mistake of giving it to his hotel to handle.
“They charged me, like, $10 for one sock! Underwear was $15!” McEnroe said. “You get back the bill for a little bag of tennis laundry, and it’s $300.
“I quickly learned as a young traveling tennis player to find the local laundromat. In some parts of the world, that’s not easy.”
Today’s touring pros don’t have to be nearly as resourceful, at least when they’re competing at a Grand Slam.
Wimbledon, where the challenge is grass stains rather than clay, is the gold standard for player laundry, insiders attest. Attendants do the wash on site, folding every item crisply and placing it in players’ lockers overnight. They will even wash an outfit during rain delays and hand the player warm socks when play resumes.
The U.S. Open’s laundry system is a bit more chaotic, says doubles specialist Bob Bryan, with garments returned in a big bag rather than folded. They might be a bit wrinkled; they might not even be yours.
“You occasionally get the rogue Lotto sock. Or sometimes you get Feliciano Lopez’s pink underwear,” Bryan cracked, poking fun at the Spaniard with such piercing good looks that nearly everyone in tennis, male and female, has confessed a crush, including Andy Murray’s mother, Judy.
At the French Open, laundry is one of many challenges the tournament handles for players. Tournament officials have constructed a warren of players-only lounges, restaurants, a bar and elegantly appointed locker rooms under Court Philippe Chatrier, the largest venue on the grounds.
Players get a welcome gift upon arrival. Here, they arrange their private transport to and from the tournament grounds and collect their complimentary tickets for coaches, family and guests. A concierge arranges dinner reservations, movie tickets, museum passes or Disneyland Paris excursions.
Female players have a salon that offers hair styling, manicures, facials and waxing.
And all players, including juniors who reach the quarterfinals, can use the laundry service that ends June 8, the day of the women’s final.
That’s fitting, Bryan explains, because the French Open marks the end of the clay-court season. That’s when players toss out their clothes and await new gear from whatever manufacturer they represent. “You throw away all your socks, for sure; they’re done; you can’t wear ’em,” Bryan said. “Then you get new stuff for the grass-court season.”
In fact, the quality of a player’s socks after the clay-court season reveals so much, Bryan said, that it’s how he sized up the caliber of his opponent when he used to play qualifying matches at Wimbledon, hoping to earn a spot in the singles draw.
“If you see a guy wearing clay-court socks on a hard court or on a grass court, you know you’re in good shape,” Bryan said. “You’re licking your chops.”