May 29 (Bloomberg) -- The French Open is held at the smallest venue in Grand Slam tennis, and, if local residents and environmentalists get their way, will fall further behind rivals or move from the Paris site it’s occupied for almost 100 years.
The Federation Francaise de Tennis, or FFT, and the local government are appealing a tribunal’s February decision to block the 340 million-euro ($437 million) expansion of the Roland Garros complex into adjacent botanical gardens. While opponents have pledged to take legal action against the plan, the project is “still alive and moving on,” according to French Open director Gilbert Ysern.
“We are, together with the City of Paris, absolutely convinced that our project is a good one,” Ysern told reporters on the eve of this year’s tournament. “We don’t see why we can’t be allowed to develop it.”
The FFT plans to file its building permits in July. Neighbors are vowing to block construction through the courts.
“The extension project is monstrous,” Roger Lebon, chairman of a local neighborhood association for the Parc des Princes close to Roland Garros, said in an interview last week. “There’s concrete everywhere, and they want to pour more.”
During a May 25 presentation of the plans, FFT president Jean Gachassin told reporters the upgrade “absolutely” has to proceed, or the event risks falling behind the other three tennis majors -- the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open.
Building a roof over its main Court Philippe Chatrier, just like in Australia and Wimbledon, will allow Roland Garros to go ahead even when it rains and hold night sessions that will boost ticket sales and television coverage.
“There is strong competition,” Gachassin said. “There are other players having more financial means than we have.”
Adverse weather has frequently hampered the world’s only clay-court major, the smallest of the four Grand Slam tournaments with annual revenue of 154.5 million euros. Last year’s men’s final was postponed by a day because of rain, while wet weather forced the postponement of 14 matches yesterday. More rain is forecast for today.
The Societe pour la Protection des Paysages et de l’Esthetique de la France (SPPEF), an association that protects French heritage sites and monuments, said it and other groups are suing against the new lease between Paris and the FFT and will also contest each of the building permits. The city owns the site and will contribute 20 million euros toward the expansion’s costs, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018.
“We are in a gorgeous place that is part of Paris, and it bears a lot of history,” Ysern said. “All of this is 100 percent respected in our project.”
The French Open has been held on the red clay courts of Roland Garros, located on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in western Paris, since 1928. Originally covering eight acres of land with five courts, Roland Garros now has 20 outside courts spread over 21 acres.
Players, fans and media frequently complain about the tournament’s lack of space and cramped facilities, particularly when it rains. The expansion will add 25 acres to the current site.
Plans announced in 2009 to build a new 120 million-euro stadium near Roland Garros were shelved because of a lack of consensus among local politicians. In 2011, the FFT decided to extend into the neighboring Jardin des Serres, part of a municipal greenhouse complex. They rejected alternative options including moving the tournament near the Palace of Versailles or to Marne-la-Vallee, where Disneyland Paris is based.
‘You Can’t Move’
Leading players including women’s top seed Serena Williams said they wouldn’t like to see the tournament move away from Roland Garros if the expansion plans fall through.
“It’s a great site, people played there since its inception,” Williams said in an interview in Rome two weeks ago. “You can’t move Roland Garros. It’s like moving Wimbledon, it’s not going to happen,” said Williams, who plays her second round match today against France’s Caroline Garcia. Former champion Roger Federer of Switzerland faces India’s Somdev Devvarman.
Under the proposals, the main Court Philippe Chatrier will be refurbished to give spectators, players and media more space and build a retractable roof.
Court 1, known as the bullring for its circular shape, will make way for a large square where the tennis will be shown on large television screens. A new stadium would be built in the adjacent Jardin des Serres, meaning a number of what Ysern described as “technical” and not “historical” greenhouses will have to be knocked down. There will also be a new 2,000-seat stadium near Suzanne Lenglen court, the second-biggest showcourt.
“The greenhouses are unique,” said local neighborhood association chairman Lebon. “They are renowned worldwide.”
Moving the event to another site altogether may be the best solution, according to Alexandre Gady, president of the SPPEF.
“The extension won’t suffice,” Gady said in an interview last week. “The FFT will say in 15 years that Roland Garros isn’t meeting requirements, so it will move in a few years anyway as sacrificing the greenhouses won’t be enough.”
Consultations with stakeholders “have not always been perfect, but we try to go in depth over all the issues,” Anne Hidalgo, first deputy mayor of Paris, told reporters at Roland Garros on May 25.
“It is extremely important for the City of Paris that this tournament takes place here,” she said. “It is part of the heritage of this city. There are economic consequences for the capital, and it offers an image of our city and of our country that no one wants to give up.”
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