VIP tour of Roland-Garros

 - Sarah Edworthy

Roland-Garros offers a surreally wonderful day out for its VIP guests.

Le Village at Roland Garros©Emilie Hautier / FFT

Walk into the elegant and airy welcome lobby of Le Village hospitality centre and, voilà, it’s raining panama hats.

Dozens of the iconic chapeau, trimmed in terracotta ribbon, hang suspended in a strikingly droll arrangement.

It is this whimsical installation that sets the tone for guests of the tournament’s partners – Emirates, Lacoste, Rolex, Peugeot, Perrier et al – as they arrive for a day like nothing else in the world: a VIP experience of Roland-Garros.

The cloud of hats suspended on string calls to mind the surrealist René Magritte’s famous bowler hat (showcased memorably in a retrospective for the Belgian artist at the Pompidou Centre a few years ago). Magritte included the bowler hat in more than 50 paintings to represent “everyman”, and you could say the panama hat here represents “every fan” on a fantastical outing to the world’s premier clay-court event.

The day for VIP guests starts with a tour of the venue. The Perrier team invited to accompany a group of Chinese guests, which included a famous actor and a well-known model, on their tour.

The sacred clay

We meet in the Perrier salon and after a few tweaks by stylists to render the stars camera-ready, we set off towards entrance 33-1 of Court Philippe-Chatrier and reappear, as if by magic, at the very entrance used by players to walk onto the main show court. Outside the courtside entrance, a man mops away red clay dust;  inside, we note the staircase which leads to the players’ locker rooms, with a wall illuminated with the names of legendary Roland-Garros champions.

Roland-Garros 2019 - Rafael Nadal©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

While Alexander Bublik practises on the sacred terre battue, our guide Alicia ushers us to courtside seats and reels off some fascinating facts about the new construction.

Did you know that the new Court Philippe-Chatrier contains 3,700 tons of steel (half that of the Eiffel Tower)? Or that it retains 15,000 seats to preserve the much-treasured intimacy of the competitive stage?

Alicia also points out the FFT Presidential box, where guests such as the King of Spain, Bill Clinton, Usain Bolt and Nicole Kidman have added celebrity lustre to the on-court business. Players get a certain number of guess passes but “if Roger Federer requests passes for Tiger Woods or US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, he is unlikely to be refused,” says our guide.

Welcome to the inner sanctum

Next stop, the players’ lounge and a quick whizz around their private restaurant, gleaming as you would imagine with all sort of healthy menu options.

We don’t go beyond the locker-room doors, but we are told the refurbished amenities are bigger and provide more space for medical support staff.

We clock the referee’s desk, and the programme desk where the Order of Play is formulated according to TV demands and player requests.

Players' restaurant©Eric della Torre / FFT

Down here at the centre of operations, we also pay a visit to the weather forecast HQ, where minute-by-minute accuracy of impending rainfall and wind speed can be monitored, and meet the ever-helpful concierge team, who fulfil all sorts of wishes for players from tickets to events and restaurant bookings to birthday cakes and surprise presents for their partners.

In the absence of Andy Murray at Roland-Garros 2019, it is poignant to see the Prize Money desk – where players come to collect their cheques as they gradually depart the competition, and the Scot is famous for forgetting to do so several times in his career.

Around the world on 150 channels

Onto the media centre, the home for all who broadcast the tournament via press, online, radio, TV, social media.

It’s a big operation with 1,300 accredited journalists from 70 different nations, and daily statistics and player information delivered in three languages (English, French and Spanish). Fun fact: Roland-Garros TV is broadcast to 150 channels across 220 territories.

Press centre Roland Garros 2019©Emilie Hautier / FFT

On the walk towards the shiny, new Court Simonne-Mathieu in the gardens of Les Serres d’Auteuil, we pay tribute to No.1 Court (charmingly described by Garbine Muguruza as the “little circle”) before its post-RG19 demolition to make way for a beautiful landscaped garden area. Understandably, there is a long stop for photographs in the refined environs of the stylishly renovated orangery buildings, which house a new boutique and restaurant.

Orangerie©Roch Armando / FFT

Tribute to the warrior

Court Simonne-Mathieu is a marvel on many levels. The actual 5,000-seater show court is invisible from the exterior. Situated in the botanical garden of Auteuil, it has four greenhouses to form its four boundaries, each representing exotic plants from a different continent.

Automatic systems controlling climate, light and hydration mean the hothouse vegetation requires absolutely no human intervention to thrive.

Greenhouse Court Simonna-Mathieu©Christophe Guibbaud / FFT

Inspiringly, the court is named after a stellar player of the 1930s and wartime hero, who lost six times in a row in the final (in 1929, 1932, 1933, 1935-37) before she won Roland-Garros twice - “a real warrior in every sense,” says Alicia.

The last stop on the tour takes us down a staircase beneath Court Simonne-Mathieu to la fosse, also known as the photographers’ pit, which gives the snappers a unique and - totally surreal - court-level perspective of play.