When the French Open is played, a name crops up. The Tennis tournament is also called Roland Garros. The tournament has spawned plenty of records. Rafael Nadal has won the tournament 13 times and over 100 wins. The French Open was the first tournament in the Open Era. It was the first tournament to have equal price money for both the men and the women.
Who was Roland Garros? His full name was Eugene Adrien Roland Georges Garros. Born in Saint Denis in 1888, Roland Garros became a prominent name in World War 1 and was one of the pioneers of aviation in the early days after the Wright Brothers.
In his youth, Garros was recovering from a bout of pneumonia that nearly took his life. In order to restore his health, he took up cycling, tennis, rugby and football. It is perhaps this sporting pedigree that saw him regain full fitness.
During his summer holiday in 1909, at Sapicourt near Reims, staying with a friend’s uncle, he saw the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne which ran from 22 to 29 August. After this, he became an aviator.
He started his aviation career in 1909 flying a Demoiselle (dragonfly) monoplane, an aircraft that flew well only if it had a small lightweight pilot. In 1911, Garros graduated to flying Bleriot XI monoplanes and entered a number of European air races with this type of aircraft. This included the 1911 Paris to Madrid air race and the Circuit of Europe (Paris-London-Paris), in which he came second.
On 4 September 1911, he set an altitude record of 3,950 m (12,960 ft). The following year, on 6 September 1912, after Austrian aviator Philipp von Blaschke had flown to 4,360 m, he regained the height record by flying to 5,610 m (18,410 ft).
By 1913, he was flying the faster Morane-Saulnier monoplanes. On 23 September, he gained fame for making the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean Sea. The flight commenced at 5:47 am and lasted for nearly eight hours. In that time, Garros resolved two engine malfunctions.
Garros achieved the first-ever shooting-down of an aircraft by a fighter firing through a tractor propeller on 1 April 1915. Two more victories over German aircraft were achieved on 15 and 18 April 1915. The Aero Club of America awarded him a medal for this invention three years later. On 18 April 1915, Garros was hit by ground fire. He came down in German-controlled territory where he failed to destroy his aircraft before being captured.
After almost three years in captivity in various German POW camps Garros managed to escape on 14 February 1918 together with fellow aviator lieutenant Anselme Marchal. They made it to London via the Netherlands and from there he returned to France where he rejoined the French army. On 5 October 1918, he was shot down and killed near Vouziers.
The bravery of Garros left an indelible mark in France. It accommodates the French Open, one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments. The tournament is officially called Les Internationaux de France de Roland-Garros. La Reunion’s international airport is named Roland Garros Airport.
For all the bravery of Garros, it is apt that the French Open is named after him. 103 years after his death, the French Open remains the ultimate Grand Slam in Tennis.