The French Open has begun and the whole world has its eyes set on the clay courts of ‘Roland Garros’. Tennis fans can’t wait to see if Serena Williams will capture her 40th Grand Slam overall or if Djokovic will add another career Grand Slam to his hat of many feathers. On the other hand, clay court King, Rafael Nadal is gearing up to lift his twelfth French Open title in Paris.
But amidst all the actions and achievements, have you ever wondered why the world calls this championship ‘Roland Garros’- what or who these two words stand for. Most of us believe he is a former tennis great or an important personality in the world of tennis, but wait till you discover who he really is. You’ll be mind-blown!
Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros, better known as Roland Garros, was obviously a sports buff but he never picked up a single tennis medal. He was passionate about flying. He was one of the world’s finest pilots and also one of the many tragic victims of World War I.
When war broke out in the summer of 1914, Roland Garros was a celebrity in the budding world of aviation. By then, the Frenchman also became the first in history to fly from France to Tunisia and vanquish the Mediterranean.
But this celebrity pilot’s life is no ordinary. After joining aerial warfare, Garros participated in multiple reconnaissance missions and bombings only to end up being frustrated by technological limitations. After all, airborne warfare in the early 1900s was all about one pilot steering the aircraft and a second who carried a gun and aimed to fire at enemy planes. Imagine how minimal the chances of a hit in those speeds were!
But Roland Garros was not a quitter; he got together with engineer Raymond Saulnier and came up with a synchronization system that allowed pilots to shoot through a plane’s propellers without hitting the blades. And by 1915, French planes reigned the skies and Garros became the world’s first fighter pilot.
However, his success came to an abrupt pause when he crash-landed his plane in Germany but his tale of bravery and valor doesn’t end here. In fact that’s when the real adventure began. He tried to set his plane on fire and escape, but the Germans had already caught him by then. Garros’ capture resulted in Europe’s skies becoming all German after a young Dutch engineer, Anthony Fokker stole Garros’ synchronization system, improvised it and gifted it to his country.
On the other hand, Roland Garros was not one to give up! While the world focused in warfare, he was busy plotting his escape from a German POW camp. He sent coded messages to his countrymen and arranged for the delivery of two ‘tennis racquets’ with hollow handles. Inside them was a map of Germany and a felt hat which he hoped would help him escape. And he got his much awaited break after he and fellow pilot Anselme Marchal tricked the guards by donning German officer uniforms, which they made secretly.
Garros and Marchal’s journey afterwards was nothing short of an adventure movie – they slept in a cemetery, spent an afternoon in cinema, camouflaged themselves in the crowd before finally making it to the Netherlands, on to London, and finally back to Paris. Oh Boy! Only those who witnessed this moment would understand what a truly heroic moment it indeed was.
But Roland Garros was not done; he was desperate to get back in air. And he did so right after three years in captivity. On the eve of his 30th birthday in 1918, Garros took off on one last, fateful mission along with five other French aircrafts. Four of them left to chase a German aircraft when a squadron of Fokker planes suddenly appeared. Garros bravely dived in for the fight but never came back. The world harboured hopes that their hero survived and was back in German custody, but body and wreckage were eventually discovered near the French village of Vouziers, where Garros was buried.
Yes, this was Roland Garros – a French war hero after whom the French Open’s main stadium is named. So whether it’s Rafa lifting his duodecimo on the clay, or Federer bringing in a glorious win like always or Nole continuing his Grand Slam winning streak, one thing is for sure – Roland Garros’ legend shall live on.