Dramatic start for RG's new arena

 - Ian Chadband

Court 18 made a spectacular debut on Sunday and received a vote of approval from Sloane Stephens.

Sloane Stephens, Roland Garros 2018, Simple Dames, 1er Tour©Philippe Montigny / FFT

It seemed fitting that the first new tennis arena to be created at Roland-Garros for nearly a quarter-of-a-century should be christened at the start of Grand Slam fortnight with beautiful sunshine, teeming crowds, a marathon match that ended in tears and a resounding vote of approval from a reigning major champion.

Alas for the Parisian fans, though, Court 18’s striking main draw debut - the first time a new court has been created here since the inauguration of Suzanne-Lenglen in 1994 - also ended in awful anti-climax as the expectations of witnessing a first French victory there evaporated, with Gregoire Barrere starting off like a swashbuckling musketeer and ending as a hobbling five-set loser.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open winner, later brought some authentic champion’s sheen to proceedings as she eased into the second round of the women’s draw there and then declared enthusiastically: “It was beautiful, super-intimate, packed and had a great atmosphere.”

An atmosphere which later reached its fever pitch as a magnificent match between Fernando Verdasco and Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, which had ebbed and flowed for four hours 22 minutes, ended with the perennial Spanish favourite finally prevailing 6-7(4) 6-4 6-3 6-7(3) 7-5.

The young Japanese Nishioka, drained by the heat and struggling physically to the point that he was barely able to budge to counter Verdasco’s winning ace, ended up crying after the Spaniard  crossed the net to offer him a consoling shoulder.  

Gregoire Barrere, Roland Garros 2018, Simple Messieurs, 1er Tour©Philippe Montigny / FFT

Still, it was the absorbing opener between wildcard Barrere and Moldova’s best player, Radu Albot, that really gave the feel of why this new semi-sunken arena, the westernmost outpost of Roland-Garros, seems destined to become a hugely popular attraction.

It will have to be because it has been designed to make everyone stop longing to see the quaint old Court 2, which was knocked down last summer as part of the exciting new look for ‘Roland’.

The 2,200-seater court has a very different, much busier, more modern feel. It was a hit during last week’s qualifiers but it was only on Sunday, when packed to the rafters with hundreds of other standing spectators looking in from the outside, that you could really appreciate the frisson this gladiatorial arena is going to bring.

This jewel box, located near the end of the Boulevard d’Auteuil and against the backdrop of the Bois de Boulogne treetops, is announced when you walk towards it from Lenglen by street artist Jace’s colourful mural, celebrating the life of the aviator Roland Garros on the 100th anniversary of his death.

“I’ve created a kind of aerial universe, where angels hit balls into clouds,” explained Jace poetically. Well, for a couple of hours when Barrere will never have felt more loved and Albot never lonelier, the inspired Parisian, playing in just his second match at Roland-Garros, must have felt he was playing like an angel as the crowd’s bellowing gave him wings to fly into a two-set lead, even ‘bagelling’ Albot in the second set.

The Moldovan’s discomfort in the sun trap was obvious. The crowds on Court 18, now the fourth biggest arena at Roland-Garros and the grandest attraction for ground-pass holders, are going to be a bunch who will be determined to make a lot of noise and be part of the action. If these denizens are against you, it promises to be a long afternoon.

Albot was getting increasingly wound up as his every mistake was cheered and his every dispute over a line-call was whistled furiously. It’s not going to be an easy arena in which to concentrate with so much movement with spectators walking about while half-watching from beyond the barriers.

The Mexican waves, the queues for ice creams in the corner and the manic 'Place de la Concorde' feel at every changeover as the spectators hanging around outside are admitted to the seating areas seem set to become Roland-Garros rituals.

Yet, sadly for the 24-year-old Barrere, his dream start was undone as Albot, whose nickname apparently is ‘The Machine’, gradually started to function properly while the Frenchman suffered muscle problems in his legs.

Suddenly, his sparkling form disappeared, his movement became laboured and after losing a closely-fight third set, he then succumbed tamely, barely able to run at all, as he capitulated 4-6 0-6 7-5 6-1 6-2 in just over two-and-a-half hours.

After the anti-climax, though, came some real quality. Stephens might have been forgiven for feeling a little put out that as US Open champion she was asked to start way out on Court 18 rather than Chatrier or Lenglen but as the first seed to take to the court, the world No.10 was evidently taken with the ambience.

After a slightly shaky start against Dutch left-hander Arantxa Rus, who had held a match point over the American in Acapulco earlier this year, Stephens looked in one of her more businesslike modes as she powered to victory 6-2 6-0 in just 49 minutes.

She received a right royal cheer too; this is going to be a court that gives a proper salute to its kings and queens. “It’s far away. It’s a bit of a walk,” Stephens told rolandgarros.com with a smile. “But, hey, it’s worth it once you get there.”