My family and I have been going to the U.S. Open for the past 30 years. My love of tennis was passed on to my son Michael, who became an accomplished junior player in the USTA circuit. After he graduated high school in 2011, I decided to give him, as a graduation present, a trip to the 2012 French Open. I had always wanted to visit a second Grand Slam venue and Paris seemed the right locale for us. Australia was too far away and Wimbledon too rainy for us to plan a trip there. The trip soon involved my brothers Joshua and Neil, and cousins Arnie and Jonathan. We decided to go to the first week of tournament as you would have more access to players and more matches than we would see during the second week.
There are many ticket brokerages that advertise sales for the French Open. It became obvious that their starting prices of $350 per ticket was not in our budget. I began research how to buy tickets at face value and discovered that the French Open put their tickets on sale Feb. 15 at 7:00 a.m. in the morning French time on a first-come, first-served basis. All that was required that you register online with a User Name and Password. So it was 1:00 a.m. EST on Feb. 15 that all six of us went online to buy our tickets. The wait was up to two hours, but in the end, we were all able to purchase tickets at face value for four sessions from Monday to Thursday. The French Open policy is to permit only four tickets purchased per user the entire tournament, and the individual cost of the tickets were approximately $75 per session. We were now set to make our flights and hotel reservations to finalize our plans.
Neil, Michael, Aaron and Joshua Freilich at Lenglen
Roland Garros has two main courts, Chartrier, which seats approximately 15,000 people and Lenglen, which seats approximately 9,000. After researching the previous few years, we realized that the top players alternate on both courts in the early rounds. Since we wanted to experience both courts, we bought Chartrier tickets for Monday and Wednesday and Lenglen tickets for Tuesday and Thursday. This was to ensure we saw all the top players at least once over the four days that we were there. Our strategy was validated in that we were able to see Novak Djokovic on Monday in Chartrier, Andy Murray Tuesday in Lenglen, Roger Federer in Chartrier on Wednesday and Rafael Nadal in Lenglen on Thursday. There was also a Court #1, which seated around 3,000 and required a special ticket for admission. It was not possible to enter any of these three courts without a specific ticket for that court. If you had a ticket for one of these show courts and left a match early, you were given a voucher, which you needed to present in order to return into that stadium. Without the original ticket and voucher, it was not possible to return to your seat.
The grounds at Roland Garros are extremely small and roughly one-third the size of the U.S. Open grounds. The outer courts are extremely cramped and small, and hold only a few hundred seats. On day one, we discovered Court #2, which on one of its sides had a small dugout with roof over it to protect you from the sun. This court became our second home, and we would arrive at Ronald Garros at 9.30 a.m. in order to get early entrance to the grounds. Although matches would start at 11:00 a.m., by 10:15 a.m. the dugout was full to capacity. From our first row seats in the dugout, we watched on successive days John Isner, David Ferrer, Juan Martín del Potro and Milos Raonic. We got completely into all of these matches and the players acknowledged our cheers and exhortations. We were able to take some amazing pictures of the players at the conclusion of their matches and the atmosphere on the small grand courts was electric.
The amenities at all of the courts were extremely sparse. None of the show courts had bathroom facilities or concessions stands. In fact, it was impossible even to obtain a glass of water in the stadium. The small courts were exactly the same, and once you exited one of these courts, it was impossible to return. The lines to get into an outer court would last hours. The trade-off was that we had a guaranteed seats in one of the main stadiums, where there was no wait or lines to get in. There was no general food court like there is at the U.S. Open, but there are small stands that would sell ice cream, pizza and various other foods. Two scoops of Häagen-Dazs ice cream would cost $8 and a soda $6. Souvenirs were just as expensive with t-shirts running $40-plus and a hat was $35. My favorite souvenir purchased this year was a French Open towel, which was $20.
Michael Freilich and John Isner on the grounds of Roland Garros
Our access to the top players was unreal. On day one, we watched Novak Djokovic practice on Court #9 and then we were able to take photos with him. Roger Federer strolled past us after the conclusion of his match and a bit later, Rafael Nadal did the same. We spent time with Ryan Harrison after his practice session and he could not have any nicer to us. We stumbled into a match on Court #17 at the extreme outskirts of the grounds between Florian Mayer of Germany and Eduardo Schwank from Argentina and found ourselves singing the national anthems of both individual countries with the 100 fans that sat on the court. We were able to participate in Brian Baker’s amazing miracle comeback as we watched him defeat Xavier Malisse while waving American flags.
The quality of play that we witnessed that was exceptional. We primarily focused on the men’s tournament and had the privilege of watching from the 10th row of Lenglen as Nadal destroyed a feisty Denis Istomin. Federer was not sharp in his four-set win over Adrian Ungur and his erratic play carried over to all the subsequent matches in the tournament. We got to marvel at Djokovic’s athleticism in his win over Potito Starace. We saw Andy Murray’s listlessness and lethargy in his match as well against Tatsuma Ito of Japan. The two highlight matches of the week that we witnessed were Grigor Dimitrov versus Richard Gasquet, which was filled with acrobatic shot-making and an incredible 46-shot rally that left Dimitrov in cramps on the ground in agony and Gasquet vomiting on the court. We were fortunate to see the conclusion of the match between John Isner and Paul-Henry Mathieu on Center Court as we begged an usher to let some crazed Americans to see the conclusion of the match. The French crowd was raucous, loud, and partisan, and as Isner got more and more fatigued, he stood no chance and eventually lost 18-16 in the fifth set. I can still hear the French singing and chanting and Mathieu’s name in French even now.
Aaron Freilich and Milos Raonic after practice
We are in a golden era in men’s tennis now. There is superlative play and amazing personalities at the top of the game. I feel fortunate that I got to experience one week close up at the French Open witnessing the great players of today with access that I could never even begin to dream of at Flushing Meadows. This venue is a must for any tennis fan, who is looking for that memorable tennis vacation experience in one of the world’s prettiest cities.