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  Saturday, 20 July, 2002, 19:08 GMT 20:08 UK
The ghosts of Roland Garros
The Roland Garros stadium
Theatre of history: The best of times, the worst of times
War has often rendered sporting venues inactive.

But the Roland Garros stadium, in a remarkable period dubbed by the French as their "dark days", was to endure a different fate as hostility broke out throughout Europe for the second time.

Some tennis historians have called it a "shameful" history, and the French Tennis Federation choose to ignore it in their literature charting the life and times of the home of the French Open.

But the guardians of the championships had little choice when, in 1939, Roland Garros was converted into a concentration camp.

It was used at first by an insecure French government, as it sought to house political dissidents, aliens and other suspect types.

But as the war raged on, and as German occupation spread, it was "home" to Jews who would later be shipped East to their doom.

Roland Garros logo on net
French icon: A source of great pride to the nation
One such inmate was the author Arthur Koestler, who chronicled his experiences of political imprisonment in "Darkness at Noon".

Koestler, who escaped Nazi detention to flee to England, wrote: "At Roland Garros, we called ourselves the cave dwellers, about 600 of us who lived beneath the stairways of the stadium.

"We slept on straw, wet straw, because the place leaked. We were so crammed in, we felt like sardines.

"Few of us knew anything about tennis, but when we were allowed to take our walk in the stadium, we could see the names Borotra and Brugnon on the scoreboard.

"We would make jokes about mixed doubles. Indeed, compared to our experiences in the past and the future, Roland Garros was almost an amusement park."

Throughout its 73-year history, it is an episode that Roland Garros would rather forget.

Four Musketeers

But Koestler was wise in letting the names of Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon linger in his memory.

Two of the famous four "Mousquetaires", Borotra and Brugnon were joined by Rene Lacoste and Henri Cochet in helping to launch the venue with French tennis's 'Golden Age'.

Jean Borotra on the Centre Court at Wimbledon in 1935
Jean Borotra in the heyday of French tennis

They dominated the championships and the Davis Cup scene in the late twenties and early thirties, and their success was the motivation for Roland Garros in the first place.

In 1927, the quartet wrestled the Davis Cup from the United States, but it was obvious that there was no venue capable of staging the return 'duel' with the Americans a year later.

New look, new name

Government intervention and the efforts of two tennis clubs in Paris saw a three-hectare site at Porte d'Auteil set aside for a new, national tennis centre.

Just nine months later, the venue was completed and the first French championships were staged there in 1928.

One condition was attached by its founders, the Paris tennis club Stade Francais.

One of their foremost members was an aviation expert killed in October 1918, just five weeks before the World War I Armistice. They insisted the stadium be named in his honour.

Thus was Roland Garros re-born.

Only recently have significant improvements been made to the venue.

In 1979, the 'Village' complex of shops, bars and restaurants turned the French Open into the most pleasant of Grand Slam experiences, while between 1989 and 91, statues of the Four Musketeers were erected in the grounds.

In 1997, Court One was renamed Court Suzanne Lenglen.

And last year, with record crowds swelling the gate to beyond 400,000 for the fortnight, the Centre Court was renamed after Philippe Chatrier, the long-serving president of the French Tennis Federation.

The guardians of the French Open were indulging a more respectable, contented past.

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