Mon, 17 Jun 2019

Paris - The first day of the 2019 French Open on Sunday saw the maiden match on the new Court Simonne-Mathieu at Roland Garros -- surrounded by greenhouses and only built after years of legal battles.

The first-ever tournament match in the semi-sunken arena saw former champion Garbine Muguruza fight back from a set down to beat American Taylor Townsend, with the Spaniard's win followed by a live performance of music by French film composer Thomas Roussel to mark the occasion.

The court is named after 1938 and 1939 women's champion Simonne Mathieu, who was also a resistance hero in World War II.

The 5,000-seater venue was a controversial development inside the nearby Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil, one of the capital's most beloved green spaces.

The court's position at Roland Garros -- slightly detached from the other main arenas and surrounded by greenery -- gives it a unique feel.

Muguruza said that Court Philippe Chatrier, where she lifted her first Grand Slam title in 2016, remains her favourite court on the grounds, but was impressed by the new addition.

"I think now Simonne Mathieu is going to be my second option, because it's (a) cute court," she said after a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

"It's in a very different place. You don't feel like you are around a court. It's like in a garden. It's a different feeling.

"It's not small, but it's, you know, cosy."

The wander through the 'orangerie' that separates the court from the main section of Roland Garros is in stark contrast to the packed walkways and food stalls surrounding Chatrier.

Spectators could be seen taking a break to sip on champagne in the gardens, while the musicians gathered on a lawn to warm up ahead of their live performance.

The home fans were later given something to cheer on Simonne Mathieu as French veteran Nicolas Mahut fought back from two sets down to dump out last year's surprise semi-finalist Marco Cecchinato.

"You get into the greenhouse, and it's beautiful," said the 37-year-old Mahut.

"It's really a great court with these plants and greenhouses and these windows. You feel like it's a big court, but the spectators are close to you."

It was only last May that the French federation emerged successful after five bruising years of bitter legal battles with environmentalists and well-connected local residents worried over the impact such construction would have over the gardens' 19th century greenhouses.

At one stage, exasperated Roland Garros chiefs toyed with the idea of upping sticks out of Paris to start afresh in the suburbs.

But the court has been built, enclosed by four greenhouses housing "the only plant ecosystem of its kind", say organisers of collections from South America, Africa, South-East Asia and Australia.

It is part of the 350-million renovation of Roland Garros which has also seen Philippe Chatrier rebuilt in preparation for the addition of a roof from next year.

The historic Court No. 1 will also be demolished after the 2019 tournament, with Simonne Mathieu now the third show court after Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen.

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