Groundskeepers Najim Snoussi, left, and Hamid Tebbi spread a layer of the French Open’s iconic red clay, during the preparation of Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros earlier this month.
PARIS — Rafael Nadal just may be The King of Clay. The Spaniard recently set a record by winning 50 consecutive sets on the surface. He is once again the favorite to win this year’s French Open, the only one of professional tennis’ four grand slams played on clay courts.
But the people who know Roland Garros’s crimson grounds most intimately rarely pick up rackets. They are the tournament’s groundskeepers; some have worked the tournament since before 31-year-old Nadal was born.
“They know the feeling of sliding. They know the feeling of playing,” Fabien Tiquet, a towering groundskeeper, says of the competitors. “What happens underneath, they don’t know.”
Tiquet, 37, and his colleagues are responsible for 32 courts that stretch from the training complex, away from the prying eyes of the spectators, to Court Philippe Chatrier, the main stadium court, with its ivy-covered architecture. It seats nearly 15,000 and will host many of the tournament’s marquee matches, including the final.
To the close-knit groundskeepers, though, the architecture and capacity have little to do with the particularities of each court. “No court is the same,” Tiquet explains. “You must consider the whole context, the whole climate.
Consider Court 15. Its north corner lies adjacent to a stand of trees whose thirsty roots require groundskeepers to spray extra water on that edge regularly. Then there’s the unique foundation of Court Suzanne Lenglen, which traps water more efficiently, making the playing surface slightly slower than the other courts.
Each court takes two or three days to prepare. In the process, the courts transform from blinding white to the iconic red. The red clay is actually fine ground brick that covers the court and, during the frenetic preparation process, everything else. Wind whips the powder into the stands. Workers leave red footprints in the subterranean hallways of the complex. The workers use shovels to fling the clay across the court’s surface, then compress the layers with several different types of rollers. They use a hose to wet the courts, and then do it all over again. It’s repetitive, backbreaking work.
No detail is overlooked as Fabien Tiquet inspects the depth of a hole used for a net post on Court 15.
The procedure has changed little over the years. “Always the same,” Malek Benyahia, the 68-year-old Algerian godfather of the crew, says as he takes shelter from the heat in a concrete room underneath Court Philippe Chatrier. He gestures to the now-motorized rollers. “Before it was by hand.” Workers still have to guide them across the sun-beat courts.
Like the tools, the names of those who work the ground at Roland Garros have barely changed. Tiquet calls the shy Benyahia “Boss,” in spite of the older man’s protestations. Benyahia began working at the French Open 31 years ago. He retired in 2013, though he has been coaxed back in the intervening years to oversee the preparation. He’s also returned to show the younger workers how to work. “So that they learn like I did,” he says.
The groundskeepers use familial terms to refer to each other — and they’re not always figurative. The team features sons and nephews of former co-workers, including Tiquet, whose father told him: “Follow Malek. Even if your head is telling you go left, and he says to go right, you go right.”
Tiquet explains, “In clay courts, they are like gods, the Benyahia family.”
Their attention to detail extends to the dressing of the court, when lines are put down and nets are installed. The center strap must be attached so that the buckle faces away from the television cameras. The hose, for wetting the clay, must be hung just so along the fence, to prevent it from developing kinks. And the mesh drag mats used to smooth over the scars left by the players’ slides and volleys must be folded precisely, with the handle on top and facing out, so the groundskeepers can reset the clay in just 90 seconds between sets.
As is tradition, Court Philippe Chatrier is prepared last. On the Monday after the finishing touches were put on the surface, exactly two weeks before the start of this year’s competition, Benyahia carefully surveyed his team’s handiwork. He uses his thumb and forefinger to describe a divot discovered during his inspection.
“It was a small hole, not a lot, like this,” Benyahia explains. The remedy: Start over from the beginning. “We tore it up and redid it.”