In 1968, a revolution in Paris nearly cancelled Roland Garros
The first Slam in the Open Era amid strikes
Frightened Soviet tennis player Olga Morozova and her two friends rushed from the street to the nearest café and held their breath. Outside the window, an angry Parisian crowd overturned a car, and rioters began to retrieve stones from the sidewalk and lay them around the car. A squad of police officers with helmets and shields appeared from behind the intersection. Thus, in May 1968, demonstrations against the reform of university education began in Paris. A few days later, other sectors of society dissatisfied with the policies of General Charles de Gaulle’s government joined the student protest. The country was gripped by a mass strike involving 10 million people.
“The owner of the cafe suggested that a massacre was about to start, windows would be broken, and he advised us to flee through the emergency exit. Outside, the smell of burning and tear gas hit my head. The sirens drowned out people’s screams, but there was no fear – I felt like I was part of the student unrest in Paris,” Morozova said in her book “Only Tennis.” The events coincided with Roland Garros – the tournament was in the midst of protests that almost turned into a civil war.
The major in Paris that spring symbolized the beginning of the Open Era – “Slam” was the first in which not only amateurs but also professionals were allowed to participate. To do this the organisers even had to increase the prize fund to an impressive 100,000 francs at the time (the equivalent of $140,000 today). Five days before the start the tense situation in the capital nearly forced the organizers to cancel the competition, but after a meeting with the law-enforcement agencies, the tennis players were allowed to take to the courts.
Empty counters, petrol shortages, fans sleeping on the stands
The way to the tournament was a real ordeal for the players. Another celebrated Soviet tennis player, Anna Dmitrieva, traveled from Moscow to Brussels and then by bus to Paris. “When we unloaded, we couldn’t get a cab. It was close to our hotel from Place des Invalides, so the cab drivers didn’t want to go, we barely persuaded them. Later it turned out that those were the last cabs in Paris: there was no gasoline in the city. The counters in the stores were empty, and there was a terrible panic,” Dmitrieva recalls in her book Play Your Game.
Romanian tennis player Ion Ciriac also traveled to France via Belgium, but by hitchhiking. The driver dropped him 100 km away from Paris, and the tennis player rode his bike the rest of the way. South African Abe Segal arrived in Geneva, bought a Ford Mustang and filled it up with gas cans. Fuel was enough not only for the trip, but also for the first week of the tournament in Paris. Cliff Ricci had not so romantic and very expensive trip. American landed in Luxembourg and then took a cab 380 km away.
And yet not everyone was lucky enough to get to Paris. The men’s net was missing such tops as Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Manolo Santana and Jan Kodesh. For the women, the main loss was the absence of Margaret Court, who had not had time to gain form after childbirth. But the public enjoyed the game of multiple Slam winners Rod Laver and Ken Roswell – they did not appear in the world’s major tournaments in recent years because they left for the professionals. Fears of the organizers about insufficient attendance at Roland Garros did not materialize: the tournament drew 120 thousand fans, which was three times more than at the previous tournament.
One reason for the high turnout was good security at the sports complex – here people felt safe and shared the latest news. On one occasion a referee in the stands demanded that fans turn down their radios during de Gaulle’s speech. Fans were allowed to sleep in the bleachers – public transport did not work and bandits and looters were on the loose in a Paris littered with garbage and junk.
$2,700 for the title, a 5-7, 1-4 win in the final, the collapse of President de Gaulle
Depending on the conditions on the streets, the tennis players changed hotels several times, slept very sensitively and flinched at the slightest loud sound. Men’s singles champion Ken Roswell, who defeated Laver in four sets in the final, admitted that he had been recovering from the stress of Paris for months. The Australian earned $2,700 for his win at the tournament. By comparison, the Roland Garros main title this season will be worth € 2.2 million.
In the women’s singles, Nancy Ritchie sensationally soared. In the deciding match, the American burned two-time Paris winner Anne Jones of Great Britain 5-7, 1-4, but turned the game around and took the trophy. “The day after the final, the protests stopped. The phones started working and I was able to call my parents in Dallas and let them know I had won. It was an amazing moment!” – Richie glowed. The girl received a tiny trophy for her win, which was half the size of the one awarded today, and also had to forfeit $1,500 in prize money. She appeared at the tournament as an amateur, receiving $25 per diem from the USTA.
The events of May 1968 in France went down in history as the “Red May”, leading to a change of government and the resignation of President de Gaulle, who had monopolized power. Another French revolution served as an impetus for reforms in society. And the tennis tournament, held in the near combat conditions, demonstrated an important and very valuable feature: the beauty and power of sport is that it is above politics.